Follow me around North America and the world without having to leave your chair. Wander between the skyscrapers of Chicago. Follow the footsteps of of the Spanish missionaries in San Antonio. Stroll through time in Edinburgh. Here, you’ll find pictures, reviews, news and tips from my experiences.

Riding the bus in Matamoros

In Canada and the US, we’re all accustomed to taking the bus with these shiny new vehicles, accessible ramps, air conditioning and displays showing the next stop. In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, taking the bus is a whole new adventure and for the uninitiated, an eye-opening experience.

The vehicles are former school buses from the United States; they’ve been repainted from their traditional yellow and sometimes fancifully decorated with images of patron saints or soccer teams. The sides of the bus advertise their route, namely large shopping centres like Chedraui, Soriana or HEB. Maintenance is an afterthought; the tires are balding, some of them have rust, and even holes in the floors. However, you won’t find trash lying around or anyone smoking. The only form of air conditioning are the windows; most of them open and when the driver brings the bus up to speed, it’s refreshing. Gone are the rows of seats; they’ve been rotated to the side so they face the centre and railings along the ceiling help keep balance once the driver is under way.

Fares are reasonable at $9 MXN ($0.62 CAD/$0.50 USD); the drivers keeps their change in a little wooden box up front with the coins all neatly stacked. Even with the passengers being jostled by the uneven streets, the coins don’t topple over. Don’t expect to tap in with a pre-paid card or anything of the sort; it’s all cash based.

Sometimes there’s live entertainment on board. A musician will board with their guitar and amp and play for a portion of the ride, asking for donations before hopping off.

Most importantly, despite their worn down appearances, these buses are critical to Matamoros as everyone rides them. Students going to school, mothers out for their daily shopping, people going to work, and yes, tourists like myself.

With the bus, you get to see much of the city and it’s an easy way to get around. Matamoros retains a lot of its historic colonial-style architecture with brightly coloured homes, many surrounded by vibrant trees and greenery. There are some rough-looking parts, though looks can be deceiving. There’s a lot of charm and the bus helps you reach it in Matamoros.

Spanish Governor’s Palace

Main courtyard of the Spanish Governor's Palace.

Main courtyard of the Spanish Governor’s Palace.

Tucked away behind San Antonio City Hall is the Spanish Governor’s Palace. While this single-storey white adobe building hardly invokes the idea of a palace, it may have felt that way when Texas was still part of the Spanish Empire.

Finding it, for me at least, was a little confusing as I thought the location was named the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar (the “palace” was part of the presidio, which was a much larger fort). After wandering around the San Fernando Cathedral, we were able to get directions to the actual site. Later on, I discovered that the Spanish Governor’s Palace is listed on the directional signs throughout the downtown.

The name Spanish Governor’s Palace is a misnomer as no-one who held the title of governor ever resided in the structure; instead housing the captains of the presidio. Famed Texan historian and preservationist Adina De Zavala came up with the name during her quest to save the house.

Plates and jars adorn the table in the late 1700's dining room.

Plates and jars adorn the table in the late 1700’s dining room.

Built in early 1700s, the Spanish Governor’s Palace is all that remains of the fort. Constructed of adobe bricks and timber, the building has expanded to ten rooms over the centuries as it changed ownership. Each room is furnished with replica and antique fixtures to emulate what life was like back in the 18th century. Behind the house is a massive enclosed courtyard filled with lush plants and trees to offer relief from the intense Texas heat. Over the course of time, the house has served as a residence, pawn shop, grocery store, school, saloon, tire store and clothing store before being purchased by the city for transformation into a museum.

When we visited, the palace was relatively quite and we took our time admiring the history, architecture and courtyard garden. It was neat going back in time and learning a bit about San Antonio’s Spanish colonial history. Photos of the Spanish Governor’s Palace from my tour can be viewed on Gallery.

The Spanish Governor’s Palace is located at 105 Plaza De Armas, San Antonio, Texas, west of City Hall on West Commerce Street. Admission to the museum is $5.00 USD.

Bok Tower Gardens

The Singing Tower

The Singing Tower

Escape the hustle and bustle of central Florida’s theme parks by enjoying a relaxing stroll through the lush greenery of Bok Tower Gardens.

Located in Lake Wales, just south of Orlando, Bok Tower Gardens sits atop Iron Mountain, one of the highest points of land in peninsular Florida. Named after Dutch-born publisher Edward W. Bok, the gardens and the Singing Tower were given as a gift to the American public upon its completion February 1st, 1929.

The centrepiece of the grounds, the Singing Tower, comes from the 60-bell carillon that can be heard throughout the gardens at various times of the day. Crafted from local stone, Georgian marble and colourful tiles in the Gothic Revival and Art Deco style, the Singing Tower also houses the extensive Anton Brees Carillon Library and Chao Research Center Archive. At the base, a massive bronze door is engraved with scenes from the Book of Genesis. The tower is not open to viewing of the public. Concerts of the carillon are performed daily, at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm — a monitor near the tower provides a view of the carillonneur playing inside the tower.

Koi in the tower moat

Koi in the tower moat

With the help of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., Bok’s dream of preserving a part of nature for the enjoyment of others was turned into reality. Nestled in the gardens is the Pinewood Estate, a restored 1930s mansion that was one home to steel-making executive Charles Austin Buck. Winding paths provide respite among palm, oak and pine trees with azaleas, camellias, lavender, magnolias and many other flowering plants.

Our visit to Bok Tower Gardens started on a late Wednesday morning, so not too many people wandering about. Weather was perfect — partly cloudy, warm with a nice breeze. In the courtyard of the visitor’s centre, a small display of the flowers in bloom lined a table. It’s a neat way to introduce you to plants you might not know the name of.

At the base of the Singing Tower is a moat filled with koi. As I leaned closer to get some pictures, one of the fish surfaced, most likely thinking I would toss something edible into the water. I didn’t, but it did give me an opportunity to get a few good pictures.



The tower itself is quite intricate in details. The massive bronze door, from a distance, doesn’t clearly show the lovely details. With my 300 mm zoom lens, I was able to get a couple clear shots of the story from the Book of Genesis. Further up the tower, elegant carvings of birds line the balconies, while various pastel-hued tiles form creatures great small over the windows and carillon housing. Statues of herons grace the tip of the tower. Apparently, just steps from this door is the grave of Edward W. Bok; unassuming in size, a rectangular slab of stone is inset into the grass ringed by small white flowers.

A refreshing breeze wafted through the trees on the summit of Iron Mountain. Just past the tower is a break in the Spanish moss-draped trees with sloping field which provides a rare sight in Florida — a vista of the lower lying lands, many of which are covered in neatly planted rows of orange trees. What a view!

We took lunch in the Blue Palmetto Cafe after touring the grounds. With a selection of salads, wraps and even hot dogs, it was a great compliment to a day out. Don’t forget to try the ice cream!

Admission is required to visit Bok Tower Gardens, but is reasonable considering the time you’ll spend admiring the flora and fauna as well as the music from the Singing Tower. The visitor’s centre provides a greater look into the life of Edward W. Bok and the tower’s and garden’s architects. There’s also a gift shop, flower shop and cafe so you can take a little bit of the tower and gardens back home with you.

Enjoy a selection of photos from the gardens and the detailing of the Singing Tower on Gallery.

Sabal Palm Sanctuary

A sabal palm tree

A sabal palm tree

Brownsville harbours a unique natural treasure tucked up against the Rio Grande. It’s here that a variety of flora and fauna call the Sabal Palm Sanctuary home along the winding shores of the river that separates the United States and Mexico.

Getting to the sanctuary required us to pass through the intimidating border fence that snakes its way through most of Southern Texas. Our first attempt didn’t fare so well as we arrived just after the sanctuary had closed for the day. While the second trip proved successful, I wouldn’t have much time to spend there as I would be flying home in the early afternoon.

Once on the other side of the fence, the area seems as if you’re not in Texas anymore. The lush green foliage is a complete opposite of what general perception gives the Lone Star state. Save for the dirt road and a historic house undergoing renovation, the land appears relatively untouched by human hands.

After paying admission and protecting ourselves with a bottle of bug spray (offered as a courtesy), we took to the trails. Just outside of the visitor’s centre is a bird feeder and web cam to broadcast the feathered visitors who stop by for break.

Branching out from the visitor’s centre is a series of paths that meander around the last remaining grove of sabal palms in the United States. Starting on the Forest Trail, my friend and I wandered beneath the towering palms, stepping over the lizards and other reptiles. Sadly, since it was quite hot out already, we didn’t see many birds, save for one, hiding in the branches.

The trails wind their way through the grove of sabal palms, around a resaca – Spanish for an oxbow lake, and to the banks of the Rio Grande. Platforms and viewing huts make for great vantage points when taking pictures – patience is also key.

I would love to return, perhaps earlier in the morning when the sanctuary first opens. It’s nice, quiet and relaxing – provided you have the time. Bring plenty of fluids and spray to protect yourself against mosquitoes. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary is open from 7:00 am until 5:00 pm CDT every day, except for Christmas Day. Donations are welcomed as they help ensure this preserve remains available for future generations.

Pictures of the Sabal Palm Sanctuary are available on Gallery.

An afternoon in Matamoros

Northern Mexico has been a spot of notoriety due to the feuding between rival drug cartels and government forces. Caught in between is Matamoros, a sprawling city on the edge – the Mexican border, with the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite all the negativity, I had an opportunity to visit Matamoros – my first ever visit to Mexico. I won’t deny that I wasn’t nervous about crossing over, but I certainly wasn’t frightened. Invited and escorted by my friend, his wife, and my friend’s grandfather, I ventured across to experience Matamoros. Read the rest of this article…

Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is the largest amusement park/resort in the world, and I got to experience it first hand to see why. Although I was only there for two days, it was quite the adventure and I didn’t even get to see half of the attractions. This was the first trip I have ever made to a Disney park, so I had to take lots and lots of pictures. Read the rest of this article…

Flying into the US? That’ll be $5.50 please!

Canadian airfare fees

What Canadians pay to fly into the US

United States President Barack Obama’s proposed 2012 budget includes a fee on Canadians who will be arriving by boat or plane. The $5.50 passenger inspection fee is supposed to bring additional funds in to the cash strapped US government.

For those that travel regularly into the US, we’re very well aware of the extra fees and surcharges tacked on to an airplane ticket.

The only good news is that those who drive across the border will not be affected by this new surcharge.

No date has been set for if and when this fee will implemented.

Source: The Vancouver Sun

Changes for carry-on items

A small victory for air travellers. Transport Canada has announced a relaxation in certain items that were previously banned from carry-on luggage.

This development allows scissors with blades under six centimetres, nail clippers and similar items. Knives, regardless of their size, are still forbidden in the aircraft cabin.

Also announced were some changes to Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the agency charged with security in Canadian airports. Improvements will be made to screening processes, identification and separation of suspicious baggage, and lane configurations for for families and travellers carrying NEXUS cards.

Source: Transport Canada

A visit to the Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol

The Texas State Capitol as seen from West 11th Street

I’ve driven through a handful of American state capitals, but never have I stopped to visit any of the actual capitol buildings. That changed when a friend and I drove up to Austin during the day to check out the Texas State Capitol.

We parked next to the Governor’s Mansion on 11th Street, which runs in front of the building. The sheer size of the structure amazed me as we walked towards the gates that grant entrance to the tree and monument filled grounds. I had to stop and take as many pictures as I could from different angles – it was difficult trying to fit the enormous building into the frame.

Before entering, we decided to peruse the grounds and examine some of the monuments that line the walkway leading towards the capitol. The first were memorials to the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy and to volunteer firefighters who gave their lives to save others. Further up stood statues of Terry’s Texas Rangers and the defenders of the Alamo.

The pink granite clad exterior has a skin-like tinge to it, making it seem almost human. Above the entrance, the towering dome was encased in a web of scaffolding as repairs were in progress. Topped by the flags of the United States and Texas, emblems of the six flags of Texas embraced the facade.

Being a government facility, we were subject to screening before entering. Stupidly, I forgot to remove all of the change in my pockets, and thus set off the metal detector when going through it. After being waved over with a wand and checked for not carrying any prohibited weapon, the culprit turned out to be a single dime clinging to the inside of my pockets. Remember, when they ask you to take everything out of your pockets, that includes rogue coins!

Texas State Capitol rotunda

Standing in the rotunda and looking up at the dome

After that embarrassing moment, it was time to continue on with the visit. Past the security checkpoint, the cavernous rotunda greeted us. Up on the distant ceiling of the dome, a painted star with “Texas” spelled around it was partially obscured by safety netting suspended as part of the renovations. However, the rest of the interior was spectacular. The details on the sculpted panels were intricate and delicate. Columns seemed as if we were in a Roman temple. Balustrades encircled rows of portraits of former governors and other political figures in the history of the state on the upper levels.

On the second floor, we found ourselves in the senate chamber. Although empty of people (excluding us tourists), it was populated with many chairs and desks. Massive paintings of more historical figures, and the battles at the Alamo and of San Jacinto graced the walls. Giant windows let the warm afternoon sun fill up the room making it seem as if we were outside. Looking up, a set of star-shaped lights dangled from the recessed ceiling with frosted glass opening up to the sky.

Outside the senate chamber, we paused for a bit in the room where televised speeches are recorded. Up against a navy curtain, the six flags of Texas stood and we took turns taking poses. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as creative as my friend – looking silly standing with a blank expression between the banners.

Looking down at the rotunda, the Seal of Texas staring back. Centred in the middle of a star and ringed with the five of the six flags of Texas, the seal is almost everywhere in the capitol. From the elevators to the brass knobs on the doors, we found it. Even on the glass of the skylights in the senate chamber. Texas is a proud state and it shows.

Exploring more, we made our way downstairs and into the new wing of the capitol. According to the historical plaques mounted on the walls, a massive fire almost destroyed the building in 1983. To help alleviate crowding, during the reconstruction, the grounds to the north were dug up and a modern structure planted firmly in the space. This allowed the capitol to expand its area while retaining the familiar skyline without some ugly edifice interfering. A central atrium helps to bring in sunlight to make it feel like you were above ground. In this extension, we found the gift shop and some unique Texas treasures to take home.

If you can, stop by the Texas State Capitol and take a look around. There are guided tours of the building, or you can just wander around (like we did). You don’t have to be a fan of politics to absorb the superb architecture and history. Future photos are available on Gallery.

The Alamo

The Alamo

The Alamo

Texas isn’t Texas without a visit to the Alamo. The last of the five historic missions lining the San Antonio River, the Alamo — formerly the Mission San Antonio de Valero, is best remembered for the climactic battle between the Texians and Mexicans in 1836. Today, the chapel not only serves to remember the fight for Texan independence, but also to acknowledge the history of the natives when the Spaniards colonized the region. Read the rest of this article…

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