Viva Las Vegas!

“Can you back the hell up outta my space please?”

That.

That, right there?

Is my lasting impression of Sin City.

I think my personal experience was a little skewed.  Firstly, during the day, I was by myself, my travelling buddy was at the hackers’ conference and I was wandering the streets of sin all by myself.  I think that makes a big difference – people see single women wandering aimlessly around, and it’s like dangling a zebra to a freakin’ lion.  Complete with overwhelmed, ‘Holy crap am I really witnessing all of this?’ doe-eyes, my first day really was spent wandering aimlessly up and down (and back up, and back down) the strip.  I was taking everything in (mostly heat stroke and golf-ball sized blisters over both feet) and everyone took this as an open invitation to get up in my business – It wasn’t.

Secondly, I’ve obviously had my wicked-cool ninja training from Houston.  My ‘be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to everyone and everything’ training.  From the second I woke up and stepped out of the hotel on to the strip, I was mentally exhausted.  I felt uncomfortable, constantly on edge, needing to stay focused and keep my wits about me, I had one hand free at all times and my phone wasn’t ever tucked too far away in case I needed to call for help.  I get that this sounds an extreme over reaction or an exaggeration, but it really did put me on edge and get my back up.

Here’s the first of my travel tips for Vegas – hydration is key.  Especially in the height of summer.  People tell you this all the time and you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got it.  No biggie.’ But it IS a biggie – if you’re drinking enough water to sink the Titanic and you’re not peeing? Drink more.  Carry a water bottle with you at all times.  If you get one of those novelty margarita glasses and you empty it? Before you refill it, down a round of H2O.  I landed myself with some (albeit mild) sunstroke, and it knocked me for six.  I thought I was drinking enough water, I wasn’t drinking all that much alcohol, and I didn’t feel too badly in the moment until it caught up with me.  Then I felt rough as hell.

Sunscreen – use it.  In ABUNDANCE. Usually I’m that idiotic pasty white Irish girl who doesn’t apply enough sun cream and winds up with second degree sunburn – and everything that goes with it, the peeling, the itching, tea baths, old wives’ remedies, aloe up the wazoo, and any amount of whining and moaning about my negligent-inflicted wounds.  But this time? I was ON POINT.  The Nevada summer sun overhead is intense, probably the most intense sun I’ve ever felt – and I lived in Texas for seven years.  But Vegas is hotter than Satan’s front porch, and it’s a dry, overwhelming, OMG I CAN’T BREATHE, kinda heat.  I could almost feel my skin cooking when I wasn’t in the shade, so I was on top of my sunscreen applications, I was applying in the middle of the street every half hour to an hour while I was outside.  Don’t be caught on this one, it’s painful and it’s dangerous.  Especially if you’re drinking, dehydrated and your mind isn’t at 100% – set an alarm on your phone if you have to.  Remind yourself.  Protect yourself.

Now those important things are out of the way, let’s talk about the fun things.  What to do, where to go, what to see and what to eat.

I gave a friend of mine completely free-reign over which shows I should go see.  They were comp tickets, she knows me well enough to know what I’d like, what I wouldn’t like and if it was left up to me I’d never have been able to narrow the BAZILLIONS of shows down to just the three nights I was there.

X-Burlesque

I guess most girls tend towards getting tickets to the Thunder Down Under, or some testosterone-filled male strip show.  But, having a friend as a burlesque dancer, having seen her troupe a couple times I was excited by this one.  I love burlesque.  That said, I was somewhat disappointed by this one.  I felt like a sardine in a tin can, kinda smushed up in behind the line of tables in front – so much so that my friend was able to manage some master level photobombing of the girls in front of us.  The venue is small, sure, but there was no real need to feel like my knees were wrapped around my neck.  Secondly, it was cold, freezing cold.  I get that the girls are constantly moving and they are hot under the lights, but I shivered the entire time – maybe that’s why the feeling of sardines in a can, so you can huddle together for warmth? I’m not sure.

So, from my previous experiences, I’d have said that the art of burlesque is about the seduction, the tease, the big-reveal.  It’s not necessarily always slow, but its sensual, tells a story, makes you use your imagination for a lot of it…it’s not just getting your clothes off, or from zero to bare boobs in 0.01 seconds.  This was more a naked dance show, and some tracks were just a little on the side of weird and totes awkward moreso than anything.  I mean, it was entertaining, and of course the dudes like it, naked girls getting their kit off multiple times to different genres of music, but I can’t in good conscience dub it ‘pure burlesque’.  I think I preferred the entertainment of watching the reactions of the men in the crowd, to the display of the dancers on stage.

Burlesque University

My friend thought she’d push me out of my comfort zone and pick me up a ticket to a burlesque class.  I was equal parts terrified and intrigued.  I’d jumped out of my comfort zone when I stepped in to Krav, so thought ‘What the heck?’ and walked in to the Burlesque studio with an open mind and a thumping heart.

Let me first say, that the majority of my problems with this class, wasn’t at all to do with the organisers, other than the fact that they didn’t interject much, they were WAY too polite, the other participants of the class spoke up before the ‘teachers’ did.  We had a boy in our class, a straight, heterosexual boy, with a full beard, learning to apply make-up and to do burlesque dancing – which is fine, but go with it.  He spent over twenty minutes asking questions about the waiver, legal questions, please explain this, what does this mean, well I’m not signing this type deal.  At one point the dancer turned and said, ‘look, I’m just a burlesque dancer, not a lawyer, we can’t go ahead with this unless you sign it’, so he amended it and finally signed it.  Then the make-up portion of the class started and he kept asking questions, what is blush? What is lipstick? What does this do? Where are my cheek bones? (Not even kidding here) Seemingly all deadly serious too – DUDE.  Give it up and GO WITH IT.  By the time we got to the dancing part, there wasn’t much time left for the dancing – the dancer even told me that if I wasn’t leaving a couple days later, she’d give me free tickets for a show the following week, because this guy was such a colossal disruption to the class.

Dancing wise, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the content, but, again, we didn’t have enough time cause of Mr-Questions.  So I think I’d need to do a do-over before I could give a fair and balanced review of this class.  The choreographer and the dancer were both lovely though!

Cirque du Soliel

I admit, I was a disbeliever.

I didn’t buy in to the hype, I didn’t buy in to the cost, I didn’t buy in to the experience, I just didn’t buy it.  And then I got handed tickets to the LOVE, Cirque du Soleil – the BEATLES Cirque du Soleil.

For me, the Beatles are almost a religious experience.  On my first trip to the US in 1999 to visit my big brother in Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to a campfire version of ‘Let it Be’ – I was besotted.  I hadn’t heard the Beatles before, and, horrified, my brother bought me the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ album as a Christmas gift later that year.  I listened, I repeated, I obsessed, I loved.  I was officially a Beatles fan.  Over the years, I listened to more of their back catalogue and, had a random guy stood on stage with a plastic bucket and sang Beatles songs – I’d probably have given him a shot.

This? This was SO. MUCH. MORE. Than that.

I’m not going to ruin it for you, but it was interactive, it was 360, it was audio, it was visual and it was utterly incredible – I got choked up a time or two, and – despite her objections to the same, I’m sure I saw my girl Courtney get a lil choked up too.  If the Beatles aren’t your jam – find something that is, and go see it.  I do want to see the Mystere show now that I’ve popped my Cirque cherry.  Though, that would require a return trip to Vegas and I’m not sure it’s my kinda thang at all.

Tenors of Rock

Lastly, (but by no means leastly), I got tickets to see the Tenors of Rock – the ‘in house’ act at our hotel, Harrahs.  Being a choral singer, I was curious – just, how *does* one put on a Vegas level show, singing contemporary rock songs, with classical Tenor voices.

I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I got goosebumps, I cried, I sang, we danced – and Courtney, who didn’t have high expectations to begin with, admitted to being blown away too.  These guys were great!

Another up-side was that after the show, the guys came out for a meet and greet, picture and autograph session – being largely from England (and the lone Aussie) it was nice to have a quick chat and get a few snaps and signatures before we headed on our way.  Don’t dismiss the idea of going to the ‘lower’ level shows, I really did enjoy this one a lot, even though it’s not something I would have maybe chosen on paper.

Let me take a second here to mention the hotel.  It was a decent enough hotel and all – on the flight to Vegas, a lady was very snooty to me about the hotel I was staying in (Courtney’s work picked it) and I couldn’t figure out why.  It was perfectly nice – ok, it is one of the ‘older’ hotels on the strip and needs a bit of a facelift, and, if you compare it to the other, bigger, brighter hotels on the strip, you’ll be disappointed.  But it was nice.  Aside from restaurants on the ground floor, they had an in-house Starbucks and a little bar-type area, that had a GREAT in-house act.  Dave the Sax Man and his brother played there the few days that I was staying there – I loved them so much so that I set an alarm on my phone to call in for a drink and listen the next day too.   Gorgeous soul singers and great sax playing had strangers (including me) dancing together on the dancefloor.  It was a really nice way to pass a couple hours and take refuge from the blazing sun.

Between the pan-handlers, the pick-pockets, the people trying to get in your space about going to different clubs and venues in the evenings, those peddling wares from shirts and hats, to margaritas and henna tattoos (that they claim will last for a month, but DON’T!) and the dudes and dudettes dressed in character garb wanting a few bucks for selfies – the concept of personal space just DOESN’T exist in Vegas.  Everything is very much in your space.  If you want some ‘me time’, it’s probably not the right place to go – especially as most people are drinking, so there’s stumbling and bumping elbows, there’s also THRONGS of people – even in the skin-frying-height-of-summer.

That said? There were some pretty cool things we did, places we went and things we saw – things I enjoyed (other than the amazing shows of course!)

Food

First real night in town, we had dinner in a cute little Mexican called Canonita – deep in the belly of the Venetian hotel.  You should nab a reservation – especially if you want a river-side seat to watch the gondolas sail past you (we did!)  The food was delicious, we had some thick cheesy starter and I got some yummy fajitas, but it was more about the atmosphere and just watching the world sail by to be honest.  It was a lovely place to eat dinner, and I’d happily go back there again – even though it takes FOREVER to get to it from the street – plan an extra 20-minute walk or so in to your ‘walk to the restaurant’ journey – cause you don’t wanna end up arriving a big ole sweaty mess, to such a lovely place!

After picking up tickets to my Burlesque dance class, I went in to Gordon Ramsay’s Fish and Chips, which was RIGHT next door to the Flamingo.  I had high hopes.  I wanted British sausages, I wanted British chips – not American sausages and American ‘fries’.  Being disappointed on the sausage (not British sausages) and being told they were ‘fries’, I was disappointed.  But I loaded my fries with cheese and bacon and got the fish – aside from the fact that it was all swimming in grease, it was pretty darn good.  The fish, in particular was light and flaky and delish!

While waiting for our number to be called for the dinner buffet, Courtney and I went to the Payard Patisserie and Bistro in Caesars Palace.  I bagged a delicious hot chocolate and we split a lemon tart, it was really tasty – though a little on the expensive side, a tasty treat for sure.

Most people typically hit up the all you can eat buffets in Vegas – and we were no exception to that stereotype.  We tried three buffets while we were there, Cravings buffet (Mirage Hotel), Bacchanal Buffet (Caesars Palace hotel) and Flavors Buffet (Harrahs hotel) and of the three, Cravings was my favourite – the bottomless wine and beer helped for SURE, but I also preferred the food selections and quality in the Mirage.  I know, I know, Caesar’s Palace is THE BOMB of buffets – right? Hell, we had to wait over an hour for our number to be called.  And, sure enough, if I was in to seafood, I bet that this buffet would be my favourite, but I wasn’t impressed.  It was grossly overpriced compared to the other buffets, it didn’t include wine or beer, and while I loved the lamb and potatoes, I wasn’t thrilled at the stale bread and the clumps of fat posing as beef in the beef dishes.  Flavours rotisserie pork and rosemary potatoes were good, but the crème brulee was more like crime brulee, plus the service was grumpy and I didn’t like how sweet the pasta sauce was.  Cravings, on the other hand, I liked.  The staff were friendly and made solid recommendations of food, the wine was free – did I mention that the wine was free? And bottomless 😉 and we liked the chef station, Courtney asked the chef to throw together a pasta dish (his choice across the board) and it was delicious! Worth it.

I didn’t drink much alcohol while I was there, but the margarita I got from La Salsa (on the strip close to M&M world) was delicious!

To do

So.  The M&M store may be one of, if not my *favourite* store in ALL THE WORLD.  There’s, like, FOUR FLOORS of M&M stuff.  From a WALL of M&M’s – in a variety of flavours and colours, to everything from t-shirts and pjs, to cups, glasses and aprons.

Of COURSE there’s a mark-up on, well, EVERYTHING.  I’ve NEVER spent so much money on a single bag of candy in my entire life, but you get totally caught up in the moment, and in the desire to test the fact that M&M’s are resistant to the Vegas heat (the crunchy shell prevents them from getting all melty and smushed – it’s pure genius.)  That said? My pj bottoms got a hole in them, before they even hit the wash for the first time – can you believe that? The most expensive pair of pjs I own and they got a hole.  UGH.  I spent a lot of time in here, I explored each floor, looked at ALL THE THINGS and came away with a bit of a haul of goodies.  It’s a great place to stop in and have a poke-around.  Plus? Who doesn’t want to get their picture taken with a giant M&M?

The Coke store didn’t really impress me much at all, but it may be worth poking your head in for a bit of a look-see.  They had a couple of cool things to see – plus, y’know, aircon.

The day we left, I had a late flight – Courtney wanted to head to the airport and hang out, however, upon arrival to the airport, we discovered we were in different terminals and we went our separate ways.  Being WAY too early for even bag-drop, I decided to pay an EXTORTIONATE amount of money for a taxi from the airport to Fremont Street (and back).  It was a quick trip, cause of traffic and the time of day and it was one of my fave parts of the trip.

This is what’s known as ‘old Vegas’, it used to be the old strip – and I felt MUCH more comfy and at home here, than on the current strip.  It was, I dunno, something.  More relaxed? A little more at home.  If you need souvenirs – go here.  Much better selection, and certainly a better price than on the strip.  I got a glimpse of somewhere I’d have LOVED to visit while I was there, the Mob museum, totally my cup of tea and very accessible from Fremont street.  If I ever go back to Vegas, I’d go to the museum, and probably spend my time in town, on Fremont street for sure.

I didn’t gamble a single penny while I was there, I wasn’t even tempted, I think if I hadn’t gotten sunstroke and busted up my foot (I truly thought for a moment it was broken) I may have been a little more inclined, but I think I was quickly over the ‘scene’, the cat calling and whistling, the propositioning and the indignation at being turned down.  It was off-putting.

I dunno, I guess I was over Vegas, before I was under it.  I didn’t have the same experiences that a lot of other people have in Vegas, I wasn’t blinded by the seafood or the gambling or the glitz and glam.  I enjoyed it, but different aspects to those that typically love it.

Would I go back? Maybe.  To see and do specific places and things, with specific people.  But.  And this is a BIG but.  It wasn’t, anywhere near close to my fave city in the US and I feel like for the same money you’d spend there, there’s any number of *better* places you could go – so, I’d rather go to those places instead.

‘Dipping my toe’ as a tourist in Pune!

While my first week here was largely defined by drowning in Amazon boxes, my second week? Well, there were yet more boxes.  What can I say?  I find it much easier to just Prime some chocolate chips, sprinkles and food colour to the door, from the comfort of my bed when I’m sick, than have to get up, face the world and have to go hunting.  Ok, so someone has to stay home to receive it, and, ok, their delivery dates haven’t yet been right a single time out of the 3498752304985723094785230 packages I’ve ordered – however, most of them come early and they are delivered *right here*, so I’ll cling to my Amazon obsession until I can cling no more.

Alright, that’s not *completely* accurate, Lewis is in school from 8.45am-11.15am, by the time I get back to the house it’s after 9am, shops don’t open til 10am and the types of shops I need to go to for international stuff, meats, baking supplies etc are a little further out, traffic here is simultaneously unpredictable, but terrible, I need to wait til Col’s home, or figure a longer time for Lewis to be in school before I can do much venturing out for a good hoke.

The power has just gone out – not the first time, not the last time.  It never lasts very long at all, but there’s no warning, it stays out for a few seconds, or minutes, and then it reboots and comes back up.  During those moments, I find myself, of course, scratching my head and wondering why my internet connection isn’t working.

Last Saturday, we had to wait in for deliveries (and to sort out the hire car).  Just like the US, they don’t group together all of your Amazon deliveries, so they turn up in dribs and drabs, multiple deliveries.  Sometimes they deliver one box, sometimes they deliver ten.  The days they tell you they’re delivering, aren’t always the days they deliver.  The tracking on your order says it’ll be here Saturday, and while nine times out of ten it comes early – which should be great, right?  It’s hard to plan your life when you don’t know whether your packages are coming today, tomorrow, or the day that it’s due to be delivered per the order info.

Anyways, we were waiting in, for packages, and for the car hire people to come by and pick up the car – our new car is officially legal – yay!  But once all the grown-up, boring admin was done, I got in to the car and asked Harish to show us something in the city.  He took us to Shinde Chhatri, the little fell asleep en route, so Col and I got to check it out by ourselves – just as well, cause he’d have run rings around that place.  There was a small fee to enter, and a slightly larger fee for foreigners, the sign made me giggle – not quite something you’d see in the very PC US of A.

Shinde Chhatri is a memorial dedicated to the 18th century military leader Mahadji Shinde who served as the commander-in-chief of the Maratha army under the Peshwas from 1760 – 1780.  It is one of the most significant landmarks in the city and is reminiscent of the Maratha rule. It is a hall that marks the spot of Mahadji Shinde’s cremation on 12 February 1794.

The major attraction of the Shinde Chhatri of Pune is its exquisite architecture, reflecting the style used in Rajasthan, India. The Anglo-Rajasthani style of construction exhibits a fine blending of two different cultures. The architectural grandeur of the building is appreciable with beautiful carvings and the building is the lively specimen of a structure constructed following the Vaastu Hara rules.  The memorial retains its architectural design and beauty till date.

The fine carvings and idols of saints on the steeple of the Shiva temple are made of yellow stone and the base and the sanctum sanctorum are constructed in black stone. The Chhatri (hall) not only has carvings and painting, but also houses a gallery in it. Coloured window-panes used for the windows are of English style.  The hall is beautifully adorned with paintings and photographs of members of Shinde family.

Chhatri means umbrella in Marathi. As a sign of respect to the great warrior, visitors are required to close their umbrellas inside the premises, even if it is raining.

This place was tranquil and serene.  It was calming and peaceful – and on the grounds we happened upon a Crossfit gym, complete with battle ropes out front.

It was a nice way to dip our toes in to the ‘Temple scene’ here in Pune.  If you go on the Trip Advisor website and look up ‘Things to do’, here in the city – you’ll find a long list of various temples, I’ve made a short list to get started on over the coming weeks and months.

Sunday was our first driver-free day since we got here, Harish very kindly worked the first Sunday we were in town so we could get our feet under us a little more quickly.  So we did some home-y things, hung pictures and sorted out some things around the apartment.  Monday was another big day, we went to the Police Commissioner’s office to sort out or foreigners registration – which took over three times as long as it did the first time Col did it (he had to do it again with an updated address).  Once the sweaty, waiting round with an impatient and crabby three-year-old in a crowded building was done, I hopped in to a car with a lovely lady called Ayesha, who works for the relocation company, Lexagent and off we went on a shopping spree – I mean, tour of the city.

Local bakery I need to try!

As we drove around, Ayesha pointed out places of interest, things I need to try, places to find everything from baked goods to jewellery and fabric.  We stopped off at a couple places and I came home with a trunk full of shopping.  Everything from the tall-sized squeegee and brush that I needed to find for Rani but I’ve been coming up empty on, to a kilo of cookies (in four different flavours) that we got at a stand in the biggest mall in town, Phoenix Mall.  I went to both Natures Basket and a three storey Dorabjees – two internationally inclined grocery stores (I’ve been to a smaller Dorabjees, but didn’t know this one existed!)

I had fun, I thought it would be like a red-bus-tour, when it actual fact, it was like a spin around the city with a BFF (though we didn’t selfie together – you can tell I’m off my game!)  Ayesha was fun, but also knowledgeable – she answered all my questions, she knew where to find what and even recommended a spa for me to try (I’d picked a couple out, but she said this one is better) and I definitely feel like I have a better feel for the city now that I’ve driven around it.

Thursday night I went to my first Schlumberger Spouses Association (SSA) event, here in Pune.  The group is in its infancy for sure, as it’s only recently that there has been a large influx of SLB transfers to the city, but the chapter has totally hit the ground running.  I also finally got together with the lovely Sylviane, my successor at the helm of SSA Houston when I stepped down as coordinator.

We went to a local restaurant called ‘Farzi’, which describes itself as an Indian Bistro – when we got there the maitre D informed us that they specialise in molecular gastronomy, well, my interest was piqued.

I’ve never been to a place like that before, somewhere that takes traditional dishes (for example, a Caesar salad) and adds a twist to it (butter chicken, instead of chicken).  Nor have I ever been somewhere were the tempura shrimp comes out with ‘bubble bath’ on top of it (foamed egg white), or where my cocktail requires pouring one liquid in to another to create a reaction.

It wasn’t just fun and quirky food – it was absolutely delicious.

Shina (the chapter coordinator) ordered an umber of small plates for us to share and try, I’m glad we put our trust in her, because they were all delicious (and mercifully not too spicy!)  Maryam ordered some lamb shanks to try too – holy crap, they were delicious! Served with garlic naan and in a tasty curry gravy-sauce, it was exceptional.

For dessert, I’d read a review that said I needed to try the Baileys lollipops (and, to be honest once I’d tried them I was unhappy that I hadn’t gotten a couple orders of them and hidden in the corner to eat them all by myself).  We also got a ‘chocolate dirt pile’ which was deliciously rich and luxuriously elegant at the same time.

From the staff, to the menu, from the food to the atmosphere – not to mention the company of twenty-odd SLB wives, this was a great first night out for me in Pune.

Friday after Lewis came home from school, we decided to check out the local indoor play area – coincidentally named the same as the place round the corner from us in Larne, ‘Funky Monkeys’ at a local mall called Nitesh Hub.

I think this is the biggest (ok, not true, Glasgow was the biggest), cleanest and absolutely the best indoor play area that we’ve ever taken Lewis to.  He and Col stayed there for just over an hour (when I got back Lewis was drenched in sweat) while I went out and around the rest of the mall for a look-see.  It’s an older mall, largely filled with Indian shops, not much for the Westerners, but I still managed to pick Lewis up a couple outfits for his upcoming Indian Nights night at school and whatever other ‘local dress’ days come up along the rest of the calendar year.  I did try on a couple things for myself, however, the Indian lines seemed to be more tailored towards those a little more flat chested than myself, so I’m gonna need a tailor!

Our second week was much busier than our first, we did a little more of the touristy check-some-local-things-out stuff.  Tried to find a little ‘normal’.  We seem to at least have our weekend routine down.  Saturday seems to be our big ‘tourist’ day, we get in the car and Harish takes us somewhere to visit (he’s already picked out this Saturday’s location, and the Saturday after that, too!) and Sunday is Harish’s day off, so it is our day at home.  We Skype family and friends, Lewis does creative play with things like his new easel or building vehicles with his magna tiles, there’s outdoor football with daddy and often a movie of some kind.

I’ve registered Lewis for Lego Club in the apartment building across the street, I have the name of a swim instructor for him in a local hotel, I’ve found a choir for me to try and a sports shop to go grab a punch bag from – I just need to call and arrange lessons and get my butt out the door and do things…but, I’m the queen of delay and procrastination right now – and I’m ok with that, I’ll shake it eventually, maybe staring at all the pink things on my calendar for a while will make me more inclined to actually go out and do it all!

Week one and done – in Pune, India!

Today (Friday), is our one-week mark here in India, on one hand it seems to have flown by, and on the other, it feels like we’ve been here longer.  I have to admit, when we first got off the plane in Delhi and were met with a seriously crappy administration faff (due to the fault of the booking agent) and, when we further discovered that the employees from the ‘best airport in the world’ were a) all military, b) none of them spoke English, and c) none of them had any desire to help, my heart sunk a little.  I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find, but the lack of warm, fuzzy, hospitality and helpful natured staff at the airport was a little jarring.
We got off the plane and followed the sign for connecting flights.  We had a six-hour layover and were hoping to grab a ‘by the hour’ room for us all to decompress, shower and nap before we boarded our third, and final flight to Pune.  However, none of the armed forces along the way were helpful, friendly or approachable, yet, their entire job was to deal with people.  Travellers, tourists, people who don’t know where they are, where they need to be, nor who speak the language.
When we got to the entrance of the ‘connecting flights’, the military presence said ‘ticket?’, which, we didn’t have.  He repeated, ‘you need ticket’ and that was that, he turned his attention to the people behind us and it was as though we no longer existed.
Confused, Col left Lewis and I to go find some help, while Lewis and I sat and kept ourselves entertained awaiting his return.  An hour later, I see him trying to negotiate with another military presence, his way BACK in to the departure area of the hotel, through an exit door.  Thankfully upon recognising he really WAS with us, he let him back in.  But, to get our ‘ticket’, Col had to go public-side of the airport, and leave us air-side.  The booking agent had booked the last leg of our flight on a separate itinerary altogether and we didn’t have boarding cards for it, nor, could we get them airside.  It was a nightmare.
Add to that, the fact that we got to the check in desk and were told that due to it being an entirely separate itinerary? That our baggage allowance was 15kg per person – for a family total of 45kg.  Us? Well, we had 115kg of luggage, plus Lewis’ car seat.  And it was here that my hope for a warm and friendly India returned.  The lady at the desk was originally supposed to charge us 41,000 rupees for our ‘excess baggage’ that had only been checked through to Delhi.  Col asked if Lewis got a ‘cute discount’ and she laughed, asked an only too compliant Lewis for a hi-five and reduced our fee to 19,000 rupees – thank you, lady, you made me think that things weren’t gonna be so bad afterall.
Once we got to security, I was greeted by another cultural difference – male and female security scanners.  Once you get through the scanners, there’s a *secondary* scanning done by a TSA-similar-agent – the women get to go behind a curtain for this – but to do this, you need your boarding card.  In every airport I’ve ever been to, there’s been a passport and boarding card check as you approach security.  You’ve never needed your boarding card *through* security, so I got to the curtained area and she abruptly and rudely demands to know why I don’t have my boarding card.  Back to the boys-line I go and get my boarding card and re-join the girls line to go back through the security scanner and get scanned by Ms Congeniality.
I think what I’m trying to say is that my first impression of this place was an almost hostile one, high security, multiple checks, an overwhelmingly visible armed presence – Northern Ireland is a war-torn country, with much more recent terrorist attacks than here in India, with a highly visible police force, but you’ll at least get a smile, a nod, help if you need it.  These dudes (and one girl) seemed intent on their work, no help, no deviation from their script, no compassion or guidance.  Just security.  It was a little intimidating, and frustrating.  No ‘protect and to serve’ here.
As soon as we got through security? All of that changed.
I needed to pee, walked in and the cleaning lady said ‘Namaste’, she asked me to wait a second, grabbed toilet paper, cleaned the toilet, flushed and held the door open for me to enter.  Not only that, but when I went to tell her I’d no money for a tip? No jar was to be found, it was just cause she was helpful and kind.
After that, the little had fallen asleep on his dad’s shoulder as we sat at the gate waiting for boarding (I may or may not have fallen asleep on the chairs too).  We managed to wrangle him in to his chair without waking him, strap him in and I took off my hoody to fold up and use as his pillow.  Before long, the air hostess came by with a blanket and pillow for him, she gave Col a cookie for him during the flight, she brought us water, and they actually woke me when it was time for the meal we didn’t know we were having.  Like, hey, do you guys want fed? I kinda blinked at them in confusion as to why I was being woken up, and they were pretty nice about my grumbling at them.  The crew were very sweet.
When we disembarked and got our luggage, the hotel ambassador who was waiting outside the airport, was very sweet and insisted on moving our trolleys of luggage etc, and was very apologetic that they didn’t send a bigger car to accommodate all of our luggage.  It was nice, warm, friendly and eager to please.  They all ask how your day is, they all insist on carrying your bags and to let them know if you need anything at all.
The drive to the hotel was interesting, Lewis sat in the back seat between Col and I like a big boy – no car seat, just a seatbelt.  He was excited.  He kept pointing out the many scooters, mopeds and motorbikes and waved out the window at some of their drivers.  The number of stray dogs stood out right away.  There’s graffiti writing on almost every visible wall.  There’s no lanes painted on the roads and seemingly some kind of ordered chaos as you’re driving, there’s a lot of car horns (a lot).
At the hotel? The car gets to a barrier, and is subject to a search by the guard, under the hood, under the car, with a mirror – searching for what? Not sure.  I’m guessing explosives.  Your bags are taken away off to the side and put through a scanner and you are subject to a metal detector screening to get in to the hotel.  See what I mean about high security?
Upon check in though? We got chocolate truffles on sticks and they couldn’t do enough for us.  They comped our dinner, sent fresh juice to the room, no one ever let us carry our own baggage and the cleaning crew – the one time I met them – were so sweet to Lewis (one of them even took a selfie with him!)
I thought, for just a second, that I’d left the security presence at the airport, until, however, we went to the shopping mall, same security checks.  Pop your boot/trunk, pop your bonet/hood and get a quick mirror underneath – anywhere with big crowds or anywhere that could potentially be a target for an attack has this level of checks.  The road to Lewis’ school and the other schools in the area, has a barrier and security manning it, the guy asks where you’re going before you are allowed to pass.  It’s all a little paranoid if you ask me, but, as Col said, perhaps the rest of us are just way too lax.  Indians also have the added benefit of labour being cheap.
We finished our stay at the hotel, Friday through Monday.  We took possession of our bigger-than-our-house-in-Texas apartment on Monday, in spite of it not being anywhere near ready to be lived in just yet.  No toaster, no kettle, no other appliances, no utensils, like six pieces of cutlery and crockery, we’re using Lewis’ plastic Lightening McQueen cups left over from his birthday party as glassware, our rental furniture isn’t the best – Lewis’ bed and the guest beds are decent enough, but I’m pretty sure the sofa will give us haemorrhoids, so I opt to sit at the rented dining room table – which is also decent enough.
So far, since we moved in to the apartment, I’ve walked face-first in to a glass door, Lewis has had dirtier feet than I’ve ever seen, I’ve interviewed two maids (file this under ‘things you never thought you’d do’), I’ve ordered a fifty-three item Amazon order, that took days to piece together (and subsequent smaller orders) – (I’m frustrated with the Amazon here, but as people keep reminding me, I need to be grateful that I still have Amazon).
During the week, we placed our first ‘Big Basket’ home delivery order for groceries – let’s see what we can find.  I’ve been to one grocery store, Col has been to two, and I’m hoping to make that a third soon.  I really do need *stuff*.  I’ve received a number of social invitations (I’m just not sure what to do about the 3.5-year-old horror just yet) and I cooked eggs with a metal spoon ‘cause I have no spatula and toasted bread in my Le Creuset pan because our toaster didn’t arrive from Amazon.
The AC unit in the bedroom is leaking, the TINY freezer door doesn’t close, the maids door can be forcibly opened when locked, Lewis’ tap keeps coming apart and the drawer in the bathroom is banjacksed.  Amazon doesn’t leave packages at the door, or with the concierge – and will refund over doing redelivery, so someone has to be home the entire day you’re expecting a package (yes, yes, I know, be grateful I have Amazon).
So far I’ve seen pigs, goats and any amount of stray dogs in the street, I’m horrified no one wears leathers or a helmet on their bikes and I can’t find cheese or diet coke (I think this ones been remedied) and not to mention, everyone wants to touch my son.  He’s blue eyed, blonde haired and everyone wants to put their hand on his head, cheeks, give hi fives, fist bumps – one hotel worker even grabbed him for a hug.  Lewis was not thrilled at his boundaries being compromised.  He’s jet-lagged, he’s in a new place, with new people, everything is different and he’s just a little overwhelmed right now.
But, it’s all good in the hood.  Just taking each moment in my stride and hoping to climb out of the expat transfer-fog soon.
Sunday, we went to Seasons Mall to pick up some groceries from the first of many grocery stores, Star Bazaar – where we happened upon a huge group of ladies doing Bollywood dancing in the mall.  It was pretty impressive to watch and hundreds of people crowded round the balcony on each floor to watch.
Tuesday, I did something I don’t think I ever had on my ‘to-do’ list before.  I interviewed for a maid.  That was interesting.  She came by way of another SSA lady, who got the recommendation from the relocation company, her name was Mary and she was late to the house.  Not a great first impression, I thought, that was, until our driver took her back home after the interview, and Col was there to witness just how far she had walked to get to our apartment.  Born and raised here in Pune, Mary had never been to this side of town before.  She came recommended by an employee .  I didn’t hire her, for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the daily trek she’d have to make, even in a TukTuk or cab it would have been a decent journey and I’d have feared she’d leave for a closer gig if one came up.
Wednesday, (day 5 of our time in India) was a landmark day for Master Lewis.  Day 1 at nursery.  It’s only a two-and-a-half-hour curriculum, 8.45am – 11.15am, but he took it like a boss.  I stayed with him until 10.15am and then headed home.  They said he was very good and didn’t cry or try to come after me at all – and when Col went to pick him up from school, he was having so much fun that he needed physically picked up and taken home!
Maid #2 interview also happened on Wednesday.  A lady and her daughter (?) came by when Col moved in, and again during the week to offer the daughters services for cleaning.  They clean in various apartments around these parts and although she wanted to haggle on salary (despite my offering *more* than she requested) I opted to hire her and see how things go.  (I’ll write a separate post about maids and drivers and bears – oh my! At some point in the near future).
Wednesday night, we had our first grocery home delivery experience.  We went with a store called ‘Big Basket’, and it went much better than we expected.  It was quick, painless, free delivery and we got a variety of things that I hadn’t seen in Star Bazaar the previous week that we were there.  It will definitely be a repeatable experience for sure.
Thursday morning, I ran in to my first ‘major’ Las-needs-to-clip-her-wings moment, and it stung. I had, while in the US, picked up few packages of cartoon themed pencils for Lewis’ class, in the UK I’d picked up a multipack of Milky Ways and was going to give each of the nine kids in his class a treat for Lewis joining his new school.  The principal, very diplomatically, informed me that while Lewis could eat it, he wasn’t allowed to share, even if they were individually portioned.  Some kids have chocolate allergies (yet we weren’t told not to send chocolate, or nuts, or eggs or any of the common allergens) so she couldn’t permit it.  Then I brought out the pencils and she said no, that it’s not fair on other parents for me to give out gifts and treats to the kids who would maybe feel obliged to ‘keep up with the Jones’.
I wasn’t expecting this at all and, admittedly, I think it hit my ‘Pinterest Mom’ self, harder than it perhaps should have done, but expats fresh from transfer, can tend to be somewhat sensitive souls.  This hit me in my sensitive soul.  I tried not to let it bug me, but it did.  No holiday treats, no baked goods, no parties, no birthday celebrations other than a small, modest cake – I’m not sure I can work under these conditions.  Maybe I’ll pick up some SSA volunteering and sort some kids events or something, cause otherwise every trip to the US will have to cover some kind of holiday for me to get my kids party fix somehow.
Thursday, was my ‘home fixin’ day’ -ok, otherwise known as shopping.  Fine.  I went shopping.  Firstly, I went to @ Home, a home furnishing store and picked up things we need, everything from crockery (60% off), to glasses, cooking and baking utensils, bath mats, toiletries organisers and even a comforter for Lewis, since duvet covers aren’t quite the ‘done thing’ here.  True to form, I went over my cash on hand, I don’t have an Indian bank account yet, no Indian cards, so I found myself standing crossing my fingers and toes that my US Mastercard would work – thankfully it did, there was no international incident because Las couldn’t get her bath mats and could finally stop using a towel on the floor – crisis averted!
After @Home, I went to my second grocery store of the week, (third if you count online shopping) Dorabjees, it was pitched as being a more international-friendly grocery shop, and I wasn’t disappointed.  My third, full trolley of the day came home from here.  I got everything from babybel cheese and Hot Wheel cars for Lewis, to baking supplies and a tin opener for me!
Aaaaaand that’s pretty much our first week in review.  Overall though, it’s been a good week.  Those I’d spoken to had warned me that it was an assault on the senses, and, in many ways, it is.  It will take some getting used to.  My hair hates the water and is constantly greasy, my skin feels clogged and dirty, I’m not drinking enough water, despite sloshing every time I move.  It’s loud – all the time – Indians don’t typically do quiet.  There’s always hustle and bustle, horns honking, dogs barking, to-ing and fro-ing.  Our driver, Harish says it’s because Indians don’t have any patience.  He’s right, you only need to look out the window and watch the traffic for ten seconds to see that everyone always has somewhere to be, and it’s more important and urgent than where *you* need to be, so they’ll be trying to pass you, make you go faster and inching over the traffic control line at lights so they can get away from the red light fast.  He also says ‘This is India, ma’am, anything is possible’, and, while I’d like to believe that, it’s hard when you look around and see the overwhelming poverty, the trash strewn around the streets, the stray dogs (and goats and pig).
It’s colourful, vibrant, (especially the women and children’s clothing) and busy, always busy I truly don’t think I’ve ever seen more hard-working people.  From women carrying all manner of things on top of their heads, to men selling fruit or building furniture at the road side or pulling carts of various ‘stuff’.  Even TukTuk drivers busying about the city – they sit in hour long (or more) lines for the gas station to fill their tiny tanks, daily, and they all hate standing still.  They always want to be moving, and doing things.
They are typically polite, especially those in the service industry, our driver, Harish, insists on opening the doors for us, carrying our bags and calling all of us sir/ma’am – including the little.  This morning he even walked me down to Lewis’ school (there’s a little bit of a walk from where the cars must stop as it’s all private property and the residents get mad at people driving down past their houses).  Our maid, Rani, is incredibly patient and kind with Lewis, who stood for a full five minutes this morning quizzing her on how she got to his room.  She also let him help her wheel the laundry to the laundry room.  She’s keen and eager to learn and to please, she asks for direction on what I’d like her to do every day and made suggestions today about where I could find things that I needed.  Downstairs? At the main door to the apartment block, we have a security guard, every time I walk past him, he stands up and says hello or nods.
At the same time? They seem to also be a somewhat paranoid race, they have security
everywhere to ‘scare’ terrorists in to not attempting to place bombs.  Harish told me it’s to give the appearance of force.  Everything here is so built up, and they have a lot of big-businesses around and if they were to have a ‘bomb blast’, it could take out a lot in one fell-swoop.  They also fear germs and sickness, upon entry to Lewis’ school you must use hand sanitizer, and the principal chases the kids around the playground with a thermometer to take their temperature – every day.
You can have just about anything delivered to your house.  Groceries, Subway or McDonalds, donuts – whatever you need, they’ll deliver, often for no delivery charge.
The roads are a crazy, yet, beautiful kind of chaos, I guess the same could be said for the country as a whole, but, to watch the traffic?  You find yourself wondering how anyone could ever survive navigating even the simplest of intersections.  Bikes laden with three, often four people, or supplies, pedestrians walking out in to busy traffic, no lanes and, as Harish says daily, the only rule of the road is that there are no rules.  It’s both fascinating and terrifying to watch.
It’s Friday and I think that it bears noting that all of the issues I mentioned at the beginning of this post (the freezer door, the AC unit etc) are currently being fixed by the fixer-dude who showed up to fix it all, and Col managed to get someone to come clear the heaped pile of cardboard and trash bags in our entrance area that have been gathering cause our trash area was full!
Next week is going to be interesting, on Monday I have an appointment with the relocation company to go and get myself registered and get my ID card (which will take a couple hours) at the Police High Commission, our new car is fully registered, so as of Monday it will be the first day in ten months that we do not have a hire car in our name – we are excited to get going in our new motor – plus? I have committed to attending my first SSA ladies event – dinner out on Thursday evening.  I’m excited to meet the local chapter – it’s in its infancy, but seems to be a very busy group of ladies indeed! My goal for next week is to register with the doctor and book appointments for shots for Col and I, and to register all of us with a dentist.
  If I don’t get it done, though, I won’t crucify myself – just taking it day by day here in the near East, that is about as far from resembling ‘near’ to my Western self, but, we’ll see what this place has to offer, and go from there.

To the lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour…

Dear stranger-lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour, 

My son was an out and out horror today. 

He was so epically, UNBELIEVABLY, naughty, that after our brief encounter on the tour boat, we made our way back to our hotel – where, I admit, the day momentarily picked up with games of hide and seek, milkshake (cause no where delivers margaritas to my hotel room) and a dance party to Fat Man Scoop, but, when bed time rolled around, he was just as bad as ever.

I don’t know what his deal is, or where I’ve gone wrong…he was such a good two year old, but three? Three is…well, it’s…it’s…something.  Someone told me a couple weeks ago that I was essentially a bad mother to my son, those words have rung in my ears every day since they were written to me, and make me question myself constantly.  

Especially today.

At some point, I sat with my son in my lap, carefully pinning his arms to his legs to avoid him hurting himself, or, from being on the receiving end of one more punch, kick, or elbow from this tiny ninja and waiting out the storm.  I had, against all odds, kept my cool and was trying to reason with him, shush him, calm him – I think I even offered him cookies at one point, bribery? Whatever it took.  Trying to explain my desire to keep him safe, trying to encourage some deep breathing, and assuring him that once he exorcised the shrieking, thrashing demon from inside of him and listened, with his listening ears, that I’d let him sit, nicely, on his bottom (not standing jumping on a chair next to an open window) and leave him be.

You see, the three year old demon, clearly did not want to obey regular human being rules today, the rules that strongly suggest that when you’re on a moving boat you don’t run like Ussain freaking Bolt, in circles, up and down flights of stairs and generally put yourself in dangerous situations, or, essentially run any which place your parents are not – thinking this careless and reckless behaviour is funny, it is not.  

Prior to the boat tour he had also not taken heed of those other tricky little regular human rules, y’know, like, 

• Thou shalt not run on the train platform.  Never.  NEVER run on the effing train platform.

• Thou shalt not drop hands and bolt from your parents in a busy tourist area for any insane person to kidnap, or car to smash in to – or, for that matter, in any public place.

• Thou also shalt not clobber thy parents with moves that have clearly come directly from Conor McGregors back pocket.

And here’s where the double standard lies for parents. Let your kid run away from you on the train platform and get smushed by a train? Or jump out the window of a moving boat? Terrible parent.  Neglectful.  Absent minded.  Tut tut.  Head shake.  Clearly an utter hot mess who deserves to be burned alive at the stake.

Shout (or use that STOP FUCKING RUNNING YOU’RE IN IMMINENT DANGER” yell that parents have), put your kid in time out, or make any threats about tech-time, toys, candy or grounding them til they’re 35? and you’re too heavy handed, too strict, that poor child.  Terrible parent. 

Anywhoo, I digress.  After enduring more punches than I have in the ring, I tagged daddy-C in to the fight and sat longingly gazing in to Boston harbour wishing the waves could open and swallow me up and praying his, inexplicable and monumental meltdown would pass quickly, then you appeared.  

“Mama, I’ve been there,” you said to me quietly over my shoulder as I bit my lip and fought back my second wave of tears of the day, “could I maybe try to help?” you asked.  “Perhaps I could play a game with him and distract him somehow?” You suggested, your voice filled with empathy and understanding.

“Sure” I said, defeated, go for it” 

“Hey buddy,” she said confidently, “would you like to play a game with me to distract you?” She asked him.  

He instantly stopped melting down, looked at her curiously, and nodded.  His wet-with-sweat hair was matted to his forehead and his crocodile-tear stained cheeks were hotter than the Red Sox logo.  But he was listening.

“Let’s distract you,” she continued, “because I’m not mama or daddy and you may even listen to me.  Can you play patty cake?” She enquired,

He nodded to the affirmative (even though he cannot) and she requested he put his hands up.  He stared at her as she demonstrated her expectations.  “I’ll just leave my hands here until you’re ready to do it too”, she said to him calmly.  

He pauses for a second, glances at me, glances back to the lady, and double hi-fives the stranger.
She began singing and clapping with him, explaining the process as she went along – and for maybe 30 whole seconds he was my happy little boy again, before he plopped off the chair he was calmly sitting on and made a bee-line for the stairs to the upper levels on the boat.
I wanted to cry.  I wanted to curl up in a ball, admit defeat and have my parenting pass withdrawn.  I wanted to offer my small child up to this, clearly superior-to-me parent, and say ‘Hey, go for it’.  He’s yours to fuck up now.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong”, my voice quivered at her.
“You’re going to be fine”, she replied, “you’re doing great, mama.”
“It doesn’t feel like it” I sighed.
“You gotta love an independent, strong-willed child.  It will serve him well when he’s older, but it’s so hard to endure right now.  Stick with it” she encouraged.
Turns out, she has two girls herself, 6 and 8 year olds and was one of the most genuine, least “other mother”-y type parents I’ve ever met.  She’s been there, done that, and enjoying a little nice-time before gearing up for puberty and the bitchy-ville wars that she’s soon to be staring down.
Ok, the rest of our day was blown to shit, our hundred dollar day passes to the kids museum, swan paddle boats and trolley tour, among other things were completely wasted.
Ok, I had to physically hold him in his bed to stop him climbing, jumping, running and causing mayhem and throwing things at bed time.
Ok so I wanted the ground to swallow me up from embarrassment, anger, frustration, resignation…but for an instant, this absolute stranger, sat in my space, reached out a little branch of calm and made me feel even just a teeny tiny little bit better about myself in that awful moment.
So, thank you, lady on the Bostonian boat tour, in the chaos I didn’t even catch your name, for agreeing with me that 3 years old, is a whole nother level of hell, than 2 was.  For taking a moment out of your sight-seeing trip, in blissful solitude all by yourself, away from your own children, to try and help better my day, even just for an instant and to give me some relief from the hellish demon that has seemingly all but replaced my loving and kind little boy.  For making me feel better about my defeated-feeling self, when all I really wanted to do was drink, eat chocolate, cry and disappear.
As I stepped off the boat behind Col, who was getting his glasses smacked off his face for the 38559295th time, I received a text from a friend, “I get that he’s an asshole kid right now.  But you fought hard to have that little asshole and you’ll fight hard to figure out what his damn problem is and set him straight.  Even if it’s emotionally exhausting and there are days that you just want to quit.”
Today? Today I want to quit.
And so, I’m going to bed, teary and deflated, I don’t want today to last even another second.  And considering Col and I both all but passed out on the bed the second we got back in to the hotel room, I don’t think a good sleep in the bank is a terribly bad plan.  Hopefully tomorrow is a better day, because I can’t take another one like today so soon on its heels, especially since tomorrow? We fly again. Lawwwwd in heaven, help me.
Today was a bad, bad day.  I’m praying that tomorrow is better.
He wasn’t all bad – see? This cute, adorable, sweaty-faced, sun-kissed smile? Yeah.  He was grinning because he went running around the sidewalk next to a busy bus pick-up/drop-off area at the airport like the Tasmanian devil.  Causing high blood pressure, severe heart palpitations and shrieking.  All the while yelling ‘Ha Ha! You can’t get meeeeee!’ at Colin and I – and he’s right, we typically *can’t* get him, unless we cut him off from different sides and swoop him up when he can’t see us coming.  He’s a slippy one.
Why do kids gotta be such little a-holes sometimes?  All we have tried to do on this trip is bring him fun places and do fun things.  Screw it, our next vacation will be spent at Presidential libraries, WWII ships and state capitols and he can just live with it.
Ugh! He’s lucky he’s cute.

Things to do in Texas: Texas State Railroad (Fall Foliage Brunch Train)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, we went home to the UK for a few weeks, I’ve been under the weather (before and since), and Lewis is keeping me on my toes.  But, we recently embarked on a fun activity here in Texas, that I wanted to share with y’all, in case you are interested in doing the Polar Express train before Christmas.

Col and I have been married for five years as of October, the traditional gift is wood, and, after having bought him his record player (affectionately named ‘Maggie’), I wanted to find something for us to do together, to mark the occasion.  As many of you know, we love our little getaways, a weekend here, an overnight there, we love exploring Texas and think, as a state, it has so much to offer.  To get to the train ride took exactly three hours from Houston (though, on our way TO the train, it took five hours, an hour in traffic, an hour stopped for lunch, plus the three hour journey – yawn!)

We went up the day before, spent the afternoon in the hotel pool (the Hampton inn and suites, if you’re interested, was excellent, and we’d go back without question and, while I’m at it, grab a delicious pizza in a restaurant called ‘Switch’).

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For those of you who say that Texas doesn’t have a ‘fall’ season, you’re wrong.  I just saw it, out the window of a hundred year old steam train as we traveled across East Texas ‘Pineywoods’ forest country.  You pay $55 per person, you board the train at one of two Victorian-style train depots at either Palestine (where we boarded), or Rusk.

They ask you to be there almost an hour early, to pick up your tickets from the ticket desk – don’t groan – that gives you plenty of time to watch the steam engine come out of her little shed, down the track and connect to the carriages, and to take pictures of the train, the depot and the surroundings, it’s very picturesque.

Once on board, we found the table with our family name place card, took a seat, and enjoyed a delicious platter of fresh fruit, fruit dip, orange juice, apple juice, water and coffee, as we waited for the train to disembark the station.

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The journey through the trees was glorious, the sun shone, the trees were a multitude of colours, and the atmosphere onboard, was excited anticipation.  The family carriage, was filled with both adults and kids alike, I was amazed to find linen table cloths, real glasses and cutlery on the tables and fully uniformed staff ready to wait on us hand and foot.  It was a real experience, we even traveled through a rainbow – which was pretty darn cool!

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As we approached our one and only stop at Rusk, Texas, they brought us slices of quiche (bacon or veggie), with a side salad and some dressing (in hindsight I should have ordered a third portion because Lewis decided he loved it and ate a chunk of mine and Col’s!)

We disembarked for our forty-five minute pit-stop, watched the engine disconnect, and pass the carriages to reconnect.  In Rusk there are bathrooms (though the lines were seriously long, I’d say just go on board the train whilst no one is on board!), the men’s bathroom had a koala care station – which is definitely worth noting for those with little ones, as many restaurants, even ‘big name’ restaurants don’t have facilities in even the Women’s toilets, let alone the men’s.

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There is a gift shop for you to peruse and some nice grounds if you’d like a wander around.  When we got back on the train, there was a platter of crackers, cheese and tomato/cucumber waiting for us and about half-way back to the Palestine depot, they brought out a selection of muffins and cinnamon rolls.  Informing us that we could ‘pick two’ (and then offered us a cinnamon roll separate), Col had the blueberry muffin and the mini lemon and poppy seed muffin, I chose the banana nut muffin and a mini lemon and poppy seed and we picked up a cinnamon roll to share.  What we actually ate, on the other hand, was half the cinnamon roll, Lewis and I shared the mini muffin and Col had his mini muffin – so much food! (We bagged the two larger muffins to take home with us on our journey home).

The thing that surprised me on this journey, other than the food being really tasty (for some reason I always expect those type of things to be quite Ming), was the service, the servers on the train were exceptional – better than many of the restaurants I’ve been in lately.  They were friendly and warm, interested (mostly in Lewis, obviously!) but not imposing, efficient and generous (one lady even gave me some diet coke and offered more if/when I fancied it).  They definitely added to the whole experience and were full of smiles the whole time.

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We both loved this experience, it was romantic, fun, different and we got to see a part of Texas that, previously, had been uncharted for us, and the train was pretty damn cool – I won some serious wifey points to boot.

Their 2015 calendar includes a romantic Valentine’s night dinner and an Easter train ride – both of which sound fun.  If Lewis was a little older, we’d take him on the Polar Express Christmas train ride for sure!

Y’all should check this train out, really – it’s worth it!!

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Five museums for five bucks in Houston, Part III: Houston Fire Museum

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This ain’t our first rodeo (or, fire museum), in fact, we’ve been to at least TWO other fire museums on our various travels, in much smaller cities than Houston.  We have put off going to the Houston Fire Museum (Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 4pm Adults $5, children $3) a number of times, just to make sure we left enough time for this place – but we really didn’t have to do that at all.

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What a disappointment.  We barely spent thirty minutes here.  UGH! For such a major city in the USA, we expected something a little more grand than a two-room museum with only two engines to look at.  My ‘147 Fun Things to Do in Houston’ book says that this place has a large collection of artifacts to look at, either the author has a poor definition of large, or they never visited this museum.  It was a poor reflection of Fire memorabilia, and we both left deflated.

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It was the first, paid Fire House in Houston, the Fire House itself is small, so they built an extension (also small) and they have a room set aside for kids parties (of which there seemed to be a hundred under one roof today, there were kids everywhere and it was louuuuud!)

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There really wasn’t a lot to look at, upstairs, the AC unit was leaking on the floor as a result of some storm damage.  There were a few glass cases up there, with some memorabilia throughout the decades which was interesting to look at, but we really expected more.

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This is the first $5 museum where I felt like I got short changed.  I don’t think it was quite worth the entrance fee.  They had some cool T-shirts and kitsch on sale, but unfortunately, I can’t recommend the Houston Fire Museum as something to do on a rainy afternoon in H-town, as it just doesn’t have the substance!

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Things to do in Houston: Art Car Museum (free)

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“Get into the left lane and aim high, but keep one eye on the rear view mirror for the black and whites. Art cars are a grass roots movement. Change your vehicle, improve it, personalize it and make your own statement with it so that you can once again become one with it. Art cars are an expression of your freedom and above all, of the God-given American right to be yourself and flaunt it on the highways and byways of America.”

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We have been meaning to check out the ‘garage mahal’ for almost the whole time we’ve lived here – I kid you not.  However, it’s in that ‘trendy’ part of town that the hubby deems to cool for him to frequent (LOL!) where the roads are crap and parking is crappier.

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That said, when my girlfriend Courtney came to town in August, I wanted to take her along to have a nosy – it’s a free, quirky and kitschy thing to do here in Houston, and, my ‘147 Things to do in Houston’ book, has it listed – I’m not sure what that has to do with the price of milk, but, go check out this museum.  DO IT!

“But Las!” I hear you cry, “What IS an art car?”

From their website: An art car is a motor-driven vehicle which a car artist alters in such a way as to suit his own aesthetic. In other words, the artist either adds or subtracts materials of his own choosing to or from the factory model or he may renovate an earlier model to revive a beauty and stlyle that once was. The result is a vehicle which conveys new meaning through design, mechanical or structural changes, renovation, and/or the addition of new images, symbols or collage elements.

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The content and meaning of these changes vary with each art car and may express either political, social, personal or purely decorative objectives. All art cars are subversive and have in common the transformation of the vehicle from a factory-made commodity into a personal statement or expression.

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It’s not a phenomenon that is specific to the USA, art cars can be found all over the world.  But, every month, right here in Houston, four or five of these amazing artistic creations can be found, right here at the Art Car museum.  The cars on display change each month, and, once a year – they have a huge parade, where the cars are driven around the streets of Houston.

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Before you get to the cars on display, there’s a couple of small art exhibits for you to ponder.  I’m not sure if these change too, but they were definitely worth a glance.

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“Often considered the ‘Art Car Capital’, Houston has the largest number of art cars of any city. Art cars are fine art essentially free of the conventions and contradictions of the marketplace and the art world. The Museum’s distinctive scrap metal and chrome exterior was created by car artist David Best and provides an imaginative indication of the extraordinary constructions to be found inside.   The museum’s goal is to encourage the public’s awareness of the cultural, political, economic and personal dimensions of art.”

Art Car Museum Information

HOURS: OPEN: Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 6pm CLOSED: Monday & Tuesday Admission is always free.

Things to do in Houston: Museum of Printing History (free)

IMG_5542Another unusal and ‘off the wall’ museum that we dug out in the depths of Houston’s recesses, The Printing Museum.  This was one of the museums listed on my ‘free stuff to do in Houston’ list and it piqued my husbands interest, in particular.  It wasn’t hugely far away for us to get to, it has ample parking, it’s not a huge place – so you’re not spending hours and hours here, but it’s definitely interesting, it’s indoors, air conditioned and somewhere neat to spend an hour or so out of the Texas heat and learn a little about Printing history at the same time.

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From their website: As far as their permanent exhibit goes, the Museum of Printing History narrates the story of written communication and the ways in which the technologies of printing have transformed our lives.  Their galleries trace significant developments from ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets, to the Chinese invention of movable type, to Johann Gutenberg’s printing press.  American history is dramatized through newspaper accounts of major events from the American Revolution to the Civil War; Texas history is told through the life of the state’s first printer, with a press he owned and a display of the documents and newspapers he printed.  The Hearst Newspaper Gallery demonstrates the emergence of modern printing, and our exhibit of historic newspapers documents pivotal moments in recent history.

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The Museum features artifacts such as:

Mesopotamian Cylinder Seals

Ancient Papyrus Fragments

Asian Movable Type & early Asian Printing

Illuminated Manuscripts

1450 Gutenberg Press Replica

Old Master Etchings & Engravings

Ben Franklin’s “Pennsylvania Gazette”

Historical Newspapers

Documents printed by Samuel Bangs, first printer in Texas, with one of his presses

1830 Star-wheel Oak Lithography Press Letterpress & Type Collection Antique Bookbinding Equipment

Aside from the Printing machinery and exhibits, they also show other, various art exhibits in the building as well.  When we visited, they had a number of exhibits for us to ponder, Col, in particular, liked this one by Russell Maret.

Russell Maret: Interstices and Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube

The latest fine press publication by New York City-based artist Russell Maret. Comprised of the artist’s notes, sketches, watercolors, proof prints, in addition to tools used in contemporary letterpress printing practices, this exhibition illustrates the creative process of producing a hand-printed, hand-bound edition from sketch to completion. (June 26, 2014 – September 20, 2014)

They also host educational and entertaining programs, lectures, and special events, as well as offering up a substantial function room for hire, for various events – like I said, this is a neat little place that most people have never heard of in Houston!

Museum info:

Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 A.M.-5:00 P.M.

Admission is free for self-guided tours. For a guided tour, the fee is $7 for adults, $3 for students, and $5 for seniors.

Parking Two Museum parking lots hold a capacity of approximately 50 cars. Additional free street parking is also available.

Wheelchair Access The building and facilities are wheelchair accessible.

Baby shower tray bake recipes

A few of my friends have asked me about the sweet treats that were available at Joanne’s baby shower a while back.  Well, please find below, the recipes we used to bring you those delicious sweet snacks – so you can make them at home yourself!

If you add anything to them or tweak the recipe, let me know – I love hearing alternate versions of recipes!

Butterfinger squares

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Ingredients:

  • 100g butter
  • 400g  milk chocolate (I used Cadbury’s Dairy Milk)
  • 6 tbsp golden syrup
  • 200g digestive biscuits/Schar shortbread cookies – crushed
  • 1 ‘pouch’ of Butterfinger mini bites crushed (keep aside a little for the topping)

Method

Melt together the milk chocolate, butter and golden syrup
Mix in the crushed biscuits and butterfingers and stir well
Spread out in a pan and compact the mixture
Sprinkle the kept aside crushed Butterfingers over the top of the chocolate – pushing gently into the mix
Leave to firm up in the fridge for a couple of hours and slice in to portions.

Reeses peanut butter cup squares

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Ingredients:

  • 100g butter
  • 400g dark chocolate (I used Ghirardelli’s)
  • 6 tbsp golden syrup
  • 2-3 cups gluten free rice krispies
  • 1 pouch of Reeses peanut butter minis cut in quarters (keep aside some to sprinkle on top)

Method

Melt together the milk chocolate, butter and golden syrup
Mix in the rice krispies and peanut butter minis and stir well
Spread out in a pan and compact the mixture
Sprinkle the kept aside peanut butter minis over the top of the chocolate – pushing gently into the mix
Leave to firm up in the fridge for a couple of hours and slice in to portions.

Biscuit cake

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Ingredients

  • 285 g half dark chocolate half milk chocolate (melted)
  • 1 tin of condensed milk
  • 225 g unsalted butter (1 packet, melted)
  • 500 g digestive biscuits
  • 300 g rich tea biscuits
  • 4 crunchie bars
  • 1 packet of mini marshmallows

Method

  • Put the biscuits and crunchie bars into a freezer bag, or between two pieces of cling film and using a rolling pin roughly crush. If you don’t have a rolling pin, use an unopened tin of baked beans, tomatoes etc.
  • Pour the crumbs into a bowl and mix in the mini marshmallows. Stir in melted butter and then the condensed milk. Mix well and then add the melted chocolate.
  • Line a 13inch Deep roasting tin or a 9inch Square with cling film. Spoon the biscuit mixture into the tin and flatten with the back of a spoon. Place the cake in the fridge for 24 hours to set.

Coconut jam slice

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Ingredients

1.5 cups plain flour (I used GF flour)
160g butter
0.5 cup icing sugar sifted
0.3 cup jam (I used raspberry)
2 eggs
0.3 cup caster sugar
2 cups desiccated coconut

Method

Preheat oven 180oc/360of
Line 16x26cm pan with baking paper
Process flour, butter & icing sugar in a food processor until mixture come together. Press into pan. Bake for 15 mins until golden. Cool for 5 mins.
Spread jam over base. Put eggs and sugar in a bowl, then whisk together until smooth. Stir in coconut. Place & spread coconut mixture evenly over the jam. Bake for 20 mins, allow to cool and cut into squares.

The other tray bake at the baby shower came from previous Irish tray bake recipes.  Caramel squares – yum!

Gluten Free Northern Irish traybakes part II…

It hasn’t been all that long since round I of our mostly-no-bake-tray-bake morning (round I can be found here), but with Jr on the way, we wanted to squeeze another morning in before he makes his grand appearance. You’ll quickly learn that pretty much ALL tray bakes in Northern Ireland are called ‘buns’, Malteser buns, cornflake buns, wee buns, big buns – they’re all buns.

I’ve already started to cobble together a bunch of ideas for the next round, but I think we’re getting towards the ‘bottom of the barrel’ with the no-bake stuff, so we may have to start branching out in to the baked-goods before long.

I love these mornings, you turn up with ingredients for one dish, go home with samples of four – hubby is happy, you’re happy, and you do 1/4 of the work to get the results – genius!

Alison was our host this time around and she made us some delicious homemade soup and wheaten bread to bring us home to our roots for lunch – it was delicious – and I’ve already requested the recipe so I can recreate it in my kitchen and further indulge in the taste of home.

Meanwhile, here are the recipes we used for our delicious no-bake or part-bake tray bakes this time around.

Cornflake buns

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This time we each picked a recipe to make and brought the ingredients for our specific recipe.  I chose to do a Cornflake tart (as it’s seemingly known online) but, for those of us who had it for school dinners in our youth, it’s affectionately known as a ‘cornflake bun’ (isn’t everything that has cornflakes in it?!) In school this was often served with custard, or, sometimes, just a wee glass bottle of ice cold milk. It’s easy to make – it doesn’t have a complicated recipe or a whole bunch of ingredients – and it’s pretty damn tasty if I do say so myself!

For the gluten free shortbread base, my friend Alison gave me a fool-proof recipe, and for the topping part, I used a recipe from a blog I found online called Pudbakes, but I made a gluten free version, and have some comments about quantities that y’all should hear.

Shortbread Recipe: 100g butter/margarine (room temp) 50g sugar 175g flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill GF flour)

Method Beat together butter and sugar, stir in flour and mix into a firm dough – I added a tbsp. of water to bind it together a little as it was all a bit dry and flaky at first.

Press into the base of a well-greased cake tin (8×8 or 9×9 would do for one batch of this dough). Bake in a preheated oven at 350F for 20-25mins until it turns a pale golden brown colour.

Filling recipe: 175g seedless raspberry jam 55g butter/margarine 55g caster sugar 25g golden syrup 175g cornflakes (I used gluten free cornflakes)

Please note:  I was NOT happy with these quantities, there was not enough ‘sauce’ to bind together the cornflakes.  In doing this recipe again, I would half the ‘sauce’ part of the recipe again and make 1.5-2 times the sauce, as the cornflakes are supposed to bind together well and not fall apart when you cut/touch them.

Method Spread the jam on top of the shortbread. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup. Mix in the cornflakes. Spread this mixture on top of the jam and leave to cool.

 Mars bar buns

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Ingredients

4 regular sized Mars bars
2 tbsps. of golden syrup
85g butter
3-4 cups rice krispies (enough to be coated in mix, but not too dry) These come in a GF version here too if you’re interested in making a GF recipe!
250g milk chocolate
Method
1. Melt together the Mars bars, golden syrup and butter in a double boiler/bowl over a pot of boiling water.
2. Mix in the rice krispies until well combined. Spread mix into an 8″ x 8″ baking tin and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Melt the chocolate. Spread over the krispie mix and leave it back in the fridge for 30 minutes until set.
4. Remove from the fridge and cut into squares
Please note:  I think the cutting in these recipes, should probably be done at room temp – we had quite a giggle trying to get the knife through the fridge-cold tray bakes!
Fifteens
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These things are a Northern Irish ‘delicacy’, they’re not an Irish thing, not a British thing, but are very specific to the North.  They sound very bizarre, and I’ve found a ‘variation’ on them that I want to try next time as I don’t like glacee cherries – but the husband loves these treats no end!
Ingredients
15 digestive biscuits/Schar gluten free HoneyGrams – crushed/blitzed into crumbs
15 marshmallows (at home they are ‘pink and white’) – cut into 4 or 6 pieces each
15 glacee cherries – cut into 4
15 walnuts (optional) – roughly chopped
1 small can of condensed milk
Desiccated coconut (for rolling)
Method
Mix together all dry ingredients except the coconut.
Stir in enough condensed milk to bind everything together – without being too wet or sloppy.
Make ‘dough’ in to a roll shape and roll in desiccated coconut to coat.
Place in fridge to set (around 30 mins) and cut in to slices.

Florentines

Florentines: bottom left!

Florentines: bottom left!

Florentines Base: 8oz digestive biscuits (crushed), 4oz margarine, 1oz brown sugar.

Topping: 4oz walnuts, 4oz cherries, 2oz almonds , small tin of condensed milk.

Melt margarine, add crushed biscuits and sugar. Press into a Swiss roll tin. Chop nuts and cherries and spread over the base. Pour tin of milk over the top and bake for 20 mins @ 180 oC.

When cold cut into squares.