New Chilean Singer Neven Jogs a Mind Trip Back to the Land of “Tren al Sur”

There was a day when the few things I knew about Chile came from 80s-90s band Los Prisioneros, and their hit Tren al Sur and its accompanying video were perhaps the spark that drew me to travel to that  South American country for the first time only a few years after the dictator Pinochet was out of power.  Meeting Chilean friends via the internet really made it all happen in 1995, and then again 5 years later.  Once there, I was intrigued by the beauty of the Pacific coastline paralleled by the snaking range of the Andes mountains and volcanos, which runs the length of the country, and even more so by the kind, soft-spoken people (though I was, and still am, perplexed by the obvious political riff among these same people).

In Chile, I made it as far south to the city of Puerto Montt and the nearby gaelic-feeling island of Chiloe.  I took the bus, not the tren al sur, but it was very much one of the best tourist adventures of my life.  In more ways than one, this video and music still take me there.

I have such a place in my heart for Chile that I’m still ready to have a visit with anyone from there whom I might meet who has made his way up here to Houston.  Likewise, I keep myself informed about what’s happening there, at least that of significant importance.  I don’t hear much music out of Chile these days, maybe because most of my music listening time comes via  SiriusXM radio during my daily commutes.  Somehow, though, by clicking here and there on Twitter, I came across Neven (@Nevenilic).  His style of music might not be exactly the type I hear on my radio most of the time–it’s sort of Justin Timberlake-esque.  What’s more he’s not bad on the eyes.  There’s a brand new video of his most recent outing After Party, but I like even better una que salio´ last year called Bad.  Neven, not to mention the videos, is still a little raw, but he’s got the voice and talent.  Maybe we’ll be hearing more of him here in the U.S.

Take a look and listen. First, comes Bad: 

And now After Party: 

Beautiful Spring Weather Sends Out the Invitation for a Gulf Coast Day Trip

Pleasure Pier is being constructed at the location of the Hurricane Ike-damaged Flagship Hotel.

Finally, I have a few–and I would say, “well-deserved”–days off.  It’s not really enough time to go on any major vacation, and really, with this great, spring weather, I’m just happy to putter in the garden, catch up on some much-needed tasks around the house, and just kick back a little.

Yesterday, my niece, her husband, and I headed out to one of our favorite day-trip destinations–Galveston.  Though it’s just about an hour’s drive down I-45, Galveston’s old port city flavor and the wide-open waters of the Gulf of Mexico always make for a fun time.  Less than 4 years has passed since Hurricane Ike inflicted major destruction upon the island city and the surrounding coast and even further inland;  however, little evidence of Ike remains, and at lunchtime, mid-week, vehicles buzzed along Seawall Boulevard, a surprising number of sunworshipers dotted the beaches, and a good crowd of other diners had decided upon Fish Tales as had we.  From our breezy spot on the upper deck, we could watch the construction of the new amusement complex, Pleasure Pier, where the Ike-damaged Flagship Hotel had once stood.

Bolivar Ferry is part of S.H. 87, connecting Galveston Island to the Bolivar Peninsula.

Though the sky was cloudless, the northern breeze crossing the restaurant deck had raised goose-bumps, so we were glad to escape to the sun-heated car (not something we’re usually glad to do most months in southeast Texas) and decided upon another of our favorite “to-do’s” when in Galveston–ride the Bolivar Ferry.  Actually a part of the Texas state highway department, this fleet of car-carrying ferries crosses the mouth of Galveston Bay and connects the east end of Galveston Island to the Bolivar Penisula.  You can get out of your car and have a great vantage point to see all kinds of boats, landmarks, and wildlife.  On this particular day, I couldn’t help but notice the intimate juxtaposition of the gulf coast’s naturaleza (I like that word in Spanish better than just “nature” in English) with the petro-chemical complexes of the area.  As part of the state highways, the ferry is free to ride, and those who just want the enjoyment of the ride can park their cars, walk on board, and make their own polical–or non-political–observations.

Once more on solid land, we headed down S.H. 87, which scoots merely yards from the rolling gulf surf.  I was particularly amazed at the great number of new beach houses that have been built since Ike tore up this peninsula.  Though raised high on tall piers, I couldn’t help but think that these summer getaway houses would be like tinkertoys if another hurricane were to make its path across the peninsula.

Smith Oaks Sanctuary's Rookery and other areas are filled with roseate spoonbills, cormorants, egrets and other birds.

The paved beach highway comes to an end just south of the small town of High Island, and unless you decide to turn around and go back to the ferry and return to Galveston, you go north and after about 20 miles, hit Winnie, where I-10 will take you back west to Houston, or east and

This web-footed neotropical cormorant perches on narrow branch.

onto Beaumont, then Louisiana.  However, we drove into High Island, which sits on raised area about 1/2 mile from the coast.  In High Island, my niece and her husband took me to one of those places that truly surprise you upon discovering them.  Smith Oaks Sanctuary was once a farm, which belongs to the Houston Audobon Society.  I had never been there before, so rather than write what I have since found out, I suggest that you read about this wonderful place here.   Whether you are and avid birder or just enjoy nature and wildlife, Smith Oaks, though off the beaten path, was for us a great desitination for a day trip from Houston.

A great egret protects its nest while two roseate spoonbills roost nearby.

A rose-breasted grosbeak munches on a mulberry.

A scarlet tanager chooses its next mulberry

Egypt in Transition: Sidenotes from Personal Experience

Like many others, I’ve given quite a lot of attention in the past several days to what’s been happening in Egypt.  For certain, what changes will be made there, whether there will be a complete change in government or whether Mubarek will stay in some sort of power, remain uncertain.

I think I watch what’s happening there with a different perspective than a lot of Americans.  As I’ve written here, and those that know me might be aware of, I was an Arab linguist in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1970s.  I studied the Egyptian dialect and the main focus of my work was Egypt, though I never set foot in the country, until a couple of my fellow airmen and I took a 10-day, TWA tour of Egypt in April of 1974.  (I’ve had a more detailed description of that trip started for some time now, so I won’t go into all of that now.)  But in looking back, it’s surprising that the Air Force let us take that trip to a country which had been the center of so much of our military work, especially the October ’73 War, which had taken place only about half a year earlier.

When we got there, we discovered a couple of things.  First, the Egyptian people liked us Americans, despite the country still being under some influence of the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the great number of Soviet tourists that we encountered and some military installations around the then new Aswan Dam.  Second, the country was very poor, but teeming with people.  The current news media talk about squares filled with people, making it sound as if is something unusual.  The streets were filled with people on a daily basis even back in the 70s, when the population of the country was around 33 million, nothing like the 80 million of today. In Cairo, people hung off the sides of buses, and the trains from Cairo to Alexandria had riders on top of the cars because inside there was no more room.  The big difference, of course, was back in those days, people were just going about their daily lives, not protesting for a change in government.  I also remember the poverty evident most everywhere.

Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt in those days, coming into power after Nasser.  I admired Sadat a lot and felt that he really wanted peace for the region and with Israel, unlike so many other Middle Eastern leaders, who wanted–and want–to do away with Israel.  I was really saddened when he was assassinated in 1981 by fundamentalists, they said, but I have always wondered if Mubarek didn’t have something to do with it as a way to get power.

I think the current problem in Egypt is, yes, partially, that of a government not giving enough freedoms to the people.  But there is another problem–a world problem–too many people.  And too many people too fast.  Egypt’s problem is not so different from that of Mexico.  Poor countries (and some rich ones too) in the past century have grown in population by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it’s because of having more access to medicines and health care.  But go to a poor country these days, and you find that the majority of people are young, and these huge numbers of young people are having more babies.   And more people use more and more of a country’s resources, but the countries just cannot create enough new jobs for everyone.

I took a lot of slides when I was in Egypt, and I’ve had a few of them digitalized.  (How many of you will have those pictures you’ve downloaded to Facebook 40 years from now?)   Here are some I like:

Night view of the Nile River and the boulevard running alongside it (1974)

Pyramids of Giza (1974), at that time the pyramids were a ways outside of the city

Luxor, Egypt (1974), the street running alongside the Nile River, across the river from the Valley of the Kings

Perfect October Weather Calls for a Day Trip

A Texas longhorn grazes on the dam of a pond

After the long, hot Texas gulf coast summer, one almost feels that these near perfect days and nights are something deserved.  The low humidity and temperatures in just the 80s in the days and into the low 60s or even 50s at night bring smiles to faces, and more than just the dogs seem to be frisky.

It’s the time to get out and enjoy the refreshing Texas countryside.  This week is the fall version of the Round Top Antiques Fair, a twice annual affair that over the years has spread itself out further and further.  There are vendors of many types housed in tents, sheds, old houses for miles around the little hill country town.  Sitting about half-way between Houston and Austin, Round Top makes a good destination for a day trip.

Going early in the day, the attendance seemed somewhat sparse, but the incoming bumper-to-bumper traffic later indicated that business was going to pick up for the vendors.

For sure, neither the sellers, buyers, nor those just going to have a great day could be disappointed by the weather.

A tranquil setting greets visitors at Marburger Farm Antiques

Bright Texas sun creates shadows from sale items on the walkway

Not the Big Kahuna, but the Big Banana

Colorful lampshades among the great variety of items for sale

Taking a Drive Out 529: Leaving Suburbia for the Open Road, a Bit of History, and Adam Lambert

F.M. 529 in Waller County, the cars are far and few between.

When I was a kid, sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, my dad would say,  “Do you want to go for a drive?”  We’d all pile into the car (the “we” that I recall most was just Dad, Mom, and me, because I was the youngest and the last one left at home) and head in some direction from the farm.  I suppose there were times when Dad had a particular destination in mind, but often we’d just take out and go wherever the car, and our whims, decided, driving for a couple of hours, looking at the  “sights”.  On some drives, we’d drop by a relative’s house or get an ice cream cone, but usually, we just drove, finally arriving back home.

I still like taking drives.  Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve often gotten into the car and just headed out without a clear destination, just enjoying the countryside and small towns I pass through.  Even though I now live in the suburbs, I still enjoy driving where the houses disappear and in their place are lines of trees, open pastures full of grass, and cool streams snaking through the countryside.

Since I’m on vacation right now, but still enthralled with having my own house and not wanting to take a real vacation, today I headed west on S.H. 529, the highway that is about a half mile from my home.

From Highway 290 to near where I live, F.M. 529 (F.M. = Farm to Market.  F.M. highways in Texas are usually shorter than S.H. roads (S.H. = State Highway) is 3 lanes each way, but as I drove west a few miles, it became 2 lanes each way, and once out of suburbia, it’s only a 2-lane road.

When you reach Stockdick School Road, you've definitely left suburbia. I took a detour down that road just because of the sort of provocative name. I didn't find any school, or anything else either.

In Bellville, you find one of the strangest courthouse-highway arrangements; Highway 36 divides to go on either side of the courthouse. There is a quaint shopping area on the courthouse square, but maneuvering this "roundabout" might prove difficult for a driver passing through this town for the first time.

I took some detours here and there, just to check out the “sights”, but finally ended up in Bellville, a cute county seat town about 30-35 miles from my house.  (Bellville is the county seat of Austin County, named for Stephen F. Austin and is steeped in Texas history.)

Despite the heat, the drive was just what I needed to get a taste of the country air and do some thinking.

The bridge passing over the Brazos River between Hockley and Bellville. This spot doesn't make the river look very impressive, but it does appear that this dead end river road is a favorite place for making out and drinking beer.

With the radio playing the whole drive, I  started  remembering about when driving between cities, the only stations that you could tune in were local AM stations playing country western music or the drone of fire and brimstone preaching.  As I was on a stretch of road between Hockley and Bellville (not on 529 then), Mix 96.5 started playing Adam Lambert’s new song, “If I Had You.”  I thought how much things have changed; even a gay kid stuck out in the middle of nowhere at least can listen to Adam Lambert and know somebody gay who is successful.  And that’s a good thing.

This little road trip today was also a good thing.  I didn’t or couldn’t stop every place that I wanted to take a photo; some places there just wasn’t anywhere to pull over and as it got after noontime, the heat made me just want to stay in with the cool AC.

Off of 529 east of Bellville, after driving through a tree-covered country lane, you'll find Pilgrims Rest Cemetery. Many of the stones in this cemetery, which is marked as a Texas historical site, have German and Czech names, some of the inscriptions in the original language. Down 529, there's a smaller, older-looking cemetery of the same name.

A stop to take a look at a historical marker proved to be the discovery of a Texan I had never heard about. Norris Wright Cuney was the son of a plantation owner and one of his slaves. He later became important in Republican politics in the latter part of the 19th Century.

You can read the inscription on this historical marker here.  This certainly gives a glimpse into what was once part of Texas history and politics, and perhaps the remnants still exist.

This old country church in Austin County doesn't appear to have services anymore, but its condition shows that its still being taken care of. You'll also find for-sale mega-mansions located on ranchettes as well as a couple of rural meat markets along this quiet strip of road.

Scattered alongside 529 in western Harris and eastern Waller Counties are any number of small- and medium-sized plants.

Matthew Mitcham, Getting Funky, and Wins Another Gold in China, Soon To Be in Cologne for Gay Games

Matthew Mitcham and Funky Trunks

Over the weekend, the Australian diver, Matthew Mitcham picked up his second gold medal in China.  The 10-meter winner of the Beijing Olympics this time grabbed the gold in the same event in the FINA World Cup in Changzou, China, once again beating out Chinese competitors for the top place.

In other Mitcham news, the Gay Games will be starting in Cologne, Germany at the end of July and the Olympic Gold Medalist will be attending.  However, Mitcham will be there in support of the the games themselves, making appearances, but not competing.

Perhaps he will be appearing in his Funky Trunks . . . because the Australian diver has signed on to become a spokesperson/model for the swimwear company that like Mitcham hails from the “land downunder”.

First-of-a kind Gay Magazine in Arabic Begins Publication

كيف حالك؟

Even when I studied Arabic in the Air Force, reading and writing weren’t my strong suits.  The squiggly lines that represent the letters with dots and other diacritical marks both above and below them are only further complicated by moving from right to left.  Making matters worse is there’s really not much difference in the way words appear in print (like the block form we have in English and other languages that use Roman-style letters) and the cursive (hand-writing) style; however,  in the hand-written form, most of the time, many of the diacritical marks, which help with the pronunciation, and, thus, the meaning and grammar, are omitted, and one is left to guess about the word.  I suppose when it’s your native language, you don’t really have to guess much, but to a non-native, all of the marks, though complicated, are helpful.

Hence, I found myself wishing that more of my Arabic had stayed with me when I read today on afrik.com that a first-of-its-kind gay magazine had started up in Morocco.  It’s called Mithly, which means “gay” in Arabic, which I think I remember, and began with its first issue on April 1st.

That this magazine has begun publication in Morocco is not so surprising, in spite of all the conservative attitudes in the Muslim world about gay people, because Morocco has had a lot of European influence through the years, and there have been rumors for many years that the King of Morocco is gay.

Even so, Morocco is not by any means a liberal country; this new magazine is actually being produced in Spain.  However, the situation has to be much better in this country just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe, in comparison to some other Arab countries, like Iraq, where gay people are brutalized and murdered, in spite of the U.S. being in such an influential position there.

There is a pared-down, online version at www.mithly.net.  Click on the translate button in the upper right corner.  Be forewarned, though.  The Google translation will leave you scratching your head in many places.

Good luck to Mithly.  Every effort like this helps more people understand themselves better and know that they are “not the only one.”