Rio Grande on the Mexican Border

Things sure have changed along the Mexico/US border and things seemRio Grande like they may change even more if Trump has his way.  The Rio Grande is a beautiful scenic area for canoes and kayaks. Not necessarily the water because it is usually very muddy looking but the entire scene around the river is so breathtaking, awe inspiring, and  so relaxing looking out at all the beauty.  All that could change very soon if Trump gets his way and ruins the natural beauty of this area.  Most of this area is within the Big Bend National Park in Texas.

It was 1998 the last time I was at Big Bend.  I had went on a camping and canoeing trip with some fellow college mates.  We drove down and camped at one of the primitive camping areas within Big Bend National Park.  I almost froze that night in my tent.  I had no idea it got so cold in a desert climate at night so the next day I went on a search for wool knee socks and slept great after that.

The whole purpose of this trip was to canoe the Rio Grande on the Mexico/US border. First we had to apply for a permit to get on the river and that is not always easy.  They only hand out so many permits and sometimes you have to wait to get on the river a looong time. To speed the process up we crafted a deal with the rangers of the park to work for one day in exchange for the permits and work us they did!  In the heat of the desert our job was to dig a gigantic hole who knows what for but it felt like a scene from Goodfellas when Joe Pesci’s character was digging his own grave in the field. Down in the hole we were sweating our faces off and all the while being hyper aware of the wildlife, mainly the Javelinas (looks like a wild boar but they are not in the pig family) that would run up on you from time to time.  The rangers said ‘don’t worry they are a little aggressive but you have a shovel use it if you need to’ great so the thought of being mauled by a pig like animal down in my own grave was a nice vision.

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Canoeing the Rio Grande. I’m in the back.

After our long, hot, and miserable work day had come to a close, we finally received our river permits.  We planned to stay on the river for 2 weeks so we had to pack our tent, sleeping bag, food etc but not too much because we had to put everything in the canoes.  I was surprised when I first saw the river, it was so muddy you couldn’t see anything and it stayed that way the whole 2 weeks.  Apparently that is how the river always is.  The bad thing was we had planned to take our baths in the river but it was so muddy we mainly used water bottles and body wipes so none of us smelled too good I guess by the end of the trip.  The first time I washed my hair in the river, it felt dirtier afterwards so that was the last day in the river to try and get clean.

Other than the Javelinas, another critter to watch out for is scorpions!  You never know where they may be lurking so if you are primitive camping always be sure to zip up your tent completely, be mindful if you have to use the restroom during the night as you walk outside and be sure to keep your shoes inside the tent.  Also if you plan on taking a canoe trip be sure you check the canoe every time before you step inside it.

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Camping along the Rio Grande

The canoe is where I found scorpions lurking twice during this trip. The roadrunner or chapparral bird is a fascinating bird to watch.  They won’t bother you but if you see them take the time to watch them for awhile.  They can run up to 20 miles per hour and can take down a rattlesnake so fast you may miss it.  Check out this video:

If camping is not your thing then there is a beautiful lodge within the park called Chisos Mountains Lodge along with a restaurant and gift shop. We went to the gift shop to check it out while we were there. There are hiking trails all around and the local deer would even come right up to you and eat out of your hand.  There is also an RV park here as well so no matter what you are looking for you can find the type of lodging that best suits you.  I can’t really suggest any food there since we were on a camping and canoeing trip, I had all my food packed in, mainly MRE’s from the military.  Those really are the best if you plan on doing any camping.

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The US side of the Rio Grande river.

Which ever type of lodging is best for you, remember to bring plenty of water as this is a desert park and drinking water will be difficult to find.  Since the desert has such polarizing temperatures you will need to be sure to pack appropriate clothes for the cold weather at night but also cool clothing during the hot days as well as a hat and sunscreen.

I was rather shocked at the lack of border patrol in this particular area, in fact we never saw any border officers for the entire 2 weeks that we were on the river.  Granted for the most part along the Big Bend National Park river access it is such a deep gorge that it would be practically impossible to cross there and highly ineffective and dangerous for anyone trying to cross, however there was one area that we came across where you would see pickup trucks full of Hispanic migrant workers driving back and forth from Mexico to the US and vice versa.  I thought how odd since you always hear how that doesn’t happen.  We stopped at this spot to get a drink at a local place right on the river. I asked one of the workers inside how these people were able to

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The Mexico side of the Rio Grande and Mexicans crossing the border after a work day in the United States.

travel across the river. She said they just drive over to work here then they drive home to Mexico in the evening.  Wow didn’t realize that was so easy.  Then she told us there was a boat down by the river with a sign that read “$5. for a ride across the river to Mexico”.  She said that there was a really good restaurant in Mexico not too far in country that visitors love to go to.  It was such a cool set up but still surprising.

Now I realize border control is a hot and touchy subject for many people right now and I’m not against border control, however the manner in which Trump is going about it is very distasteful, threatening, and damaging to international relations not only with Mexico but with other countries as well and putting the United States in a bad light.  It has been estimated that the wall Trump wants to build will cost our country and our citizens $21.6 billion dollars.  Think of where that money could be better spent.  Do you know how many border control agents there are right now?  In 2012 there were 21,000 agents and that number has only grown since then.

When I went on this Rio Grande expedition of mine it was 1998, pre-9-11 era and yes the world was very different. Of course illegal immigration has always

 Mexico and United States separated by the gorge of the Rio Grande.

been an issue here in the US but I can’t say I blame these people for wanting a better life for themselves and their families when you consider the horrible conditions they come from.  Not only from Mexico, Central and South America but all over the world.  Illegal immigration is a problem and we do need to work towards a better system, but a ‘great wall of Trump’ at the cost of $21.6 billion dollars to me is not the answer.

What is the answer? Well I can’t tell you what the answer would be to such a complex issue, but I can offer an opinion so in that spirit, my opinion is several steps.  I think as far as the border wall is concerned, we should leave it the way it is.  We already have a wall for most of the ‘crossable’ border so why spend $21.6 billion to just extend it a few feet upward, ridiculous! Border agents? We already have border agents, 21,000 of them. What we don’t have is better training of those agents, better technology to assist those agents, more trained search and drug dogs, and better education for immigrants when they do come here legally.

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The United States side and an old movie set from a John Wayne picture.

These really speak for themselves but allow me to expand on what I mean by better education for immigrants when they come here.  I believe we should put forth a greater effort to make sure that immigrants get the proper information they need, tutoring for learning English, basically an assimilation process to help them ease into their new lives here so that they can become productive citizens and love their new country.  This would benefit everyone and I believe we would have less issues with immigrants later on that feel like outcast or like they are not wanted here.  This type of treatment towards immigrants only solidifies their preconceptions that Americans hate foreigners.  Hmmmm maybe I can work towards building such a facility in the future.

So back to the trip. After our 2 weeks on the Rio Grande of being exhausted and sunburned we decided to treat ourselves and headed to San Antonio for a local art

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The river walk in San Antonio.

festival that was going on.  What a beautiful city it was.  So much talent in the area with all the traditional Mexican artwork.  The food was fantastic! More authentic Mexican than we were used to coming from Tennessee.  We walked all over the city trying to take in as much as we could.  The river walk was very nice with all types of shops and restaurants along the river that ran through town and another place I always wanted to see was the Alamo.  When we first walked up on the Alamo I was completely shocked that the it is in the middle of downtown San Antonio surrounded by high rise buildings. Not at all what I expected.  I thought it would be out away from civilization by itself, even the pictures I had seen of the Alamo looked as though it was in the middle of nowhere but once I was there in person I realized that those pictures were just cleverly taken to give that illusion of being secluded. The encroachment of the Alamo has been aggressive and has continued to grow since I visited there, however there have been recent efforts to stop encroachment, restoration of the actual Alamo and the Alamo plaza.  It was amazing to visit this historical site famous for the 1836 battle where David Crockett fought for freedom in the Texas Revolution and ultimately died there.

At the time I had no idea just how famous David Crockett was or about all his

The Alamo Mission in downtown San Antonio Texas.

accomplishments for the State of Tennessee and for our nation.  It wouldn’t be until about 6 years later that I would end up working at Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park in Tennessee and would remain there for the next 13 years as a park ranger.  I had many good times there getting to know the wonderful community and our visitors that would come from all over the world even the Director of Cultural Resources from Northern Ireland.  We of course do law enforcement as Tennessee State Parks are required to be commissioned law enforcement officers to work there, but I also enjoyed doing a wide array of diverse programs and activities with the public both historical and recreational as this park is a very diverse one and so are the employees there.  Or at least they were.  The park manager, the rangers, including myself, have moved on since the department at the time decided to change their way of dealing with

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The Alamo and plaza with fellow Rio Grande trip buddies. I’m on the far right.

the park and in my opinion have destroyed a lot of the great community relations that we worked so hard to develop. I truly hope in the future when the administration for the department changes that the incoming overseers will see what a detriment the policies were from the previous administration and will work hard to change those mistakes.

San Antonio has so much to offer and is rich with cultural diversity, local artwork, and delicious food.  It really has everything that you could need or want.  I would definitely recommend visiting this city if you ever get the chance and really soak up all the culture the city has to offer as well as all the history. Of course there are many Spanish speaking people here and with good reason, this used to be part of Mexico before the United States took over and eventually made it a state so don’t be surprise if you need to know a little Spanish when visiting.  Today it’s easier than ever with technology to help with anything you need, even learning a new language.  I have several apps on my phone (iPhone) that assist with any language that you would like to learn or just help you understanding others with the audio so take advantage of these apps before you travel, not only along the Mexico border but anywhere you may travel to in the world this is a great way to help you blend in.

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San Antonio

Some other suggestions, if you do plan on doing a canoe trip down the Rio Grande, you might want to contact the state of Texas to inquire about a permit and to check to see if access is still available with Trump pushing to build this hideous wall it may completely block the United States from having access to the river or to certain parts of Big Bend National Park in the future. Below are some websites on Big Bend, San Antonio, and an article about the proposed wall to help you with any ideas you may have about traveling here in the future.

I hope you will comment or share your own travels to the Rio Grande so others may benefit in your adventures and expertise.


Read more at:               border-texas-big-bend-national-park-natural-beauty-local-republicans 








Zambia and Zimbabwe

My very first big trip abroad was in 1989 when I was still a teenager.  I was sent to Zambia and Zimbabwe in Africa to stay with some friends of my grandparents.  At the time I was not too excited about going as it wasn’t my choice and I thought how much fun could I have staying with friends of my grandparents.  However, on the plane ride over things were looking up.  I was seated next to an Indian man that had been in the United States going to Penn State University and was on his way home to visit with his parents.  Turns out his parents had moved to Lusaka Zambia, the same place I was going, and his mother taught in an international school at the same school of the people I was going to be staying with, what were the odds of that?!

So he offered to be my guide while I was staying in Zambia and I thought what better way to see the area than with a local.  I was surprised that most of the expats living there were British and had introduced a lot of British customs to the natives. Zambia is where I watched my first polo game and had my first ‘tea’, well hot tea that is which I wasn’t too fond of at that time, and goose pate (goose liver) that was actually delicious to my surprise.  Another very noticeable cultural oddity to me was that women were not allowed to go out alone, which being the extremely independent female that I am and having quite the adverse reaction to authority I found this totally unacceptable. However I did have my new guide to take me around so it felt more like two friends having fun than being forced to drag a man around with me or face a fine.

One night I was invited by my new friend to his parents house for a dinner party. I didn’t think it through completely as they were originally from India and curry dishes were always a staple. I decided to give it try and as I suspected curry is something for me personally to stay very far away from.  I have never been so sick on food before in my life!  The point is I do try new things, if you don’t try then you will never know if you like it or not.

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On a walking safari in Zambia

Some other new food items I got to try include some interesting native ones such as nshima which is a type of cornmeal mixed with water and boiled to be a thick substance that the natives use to eat other foods mainly soupy types. This dish was too dry for my taste and really didn’t have much flavor at all. Another one that I enjoyed immensely is called Samosa, which is actually an Indian dish. It is a fried pie sort of meal stuffed with different ingredients such as potatoes, chicken, beef, pork etc. The beef one was so good I couldn’t get enough of them. I have actually recreated these at home and they were pretty good but still not as good as what I had in Zambia. (see recipe below)

There was one dish that I will never forget however, I did forget the name, maybe because I blocked it from memory it was so cringe-worthy.  It reminded me of seaweed and I think what did it for me was the fact that while I was still holding the end of it with my fingers, I could feel the rest of it in my throat and stomach.  Not a pleasant experience on that one. For the most part the people I was staying with had their butler cook most of the meals at home and he cook a lot of American type of dishes.  We did however go to one really nice restaurant, I can’t remember

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This elephant was quite intolerant of us taking his photo, he began to charge us so we had to speed away.

what I ate there I just remember a sign on the wall as we entered that read “Animals are welcomed, Children are not”  ah yes welcome to Africa, my kind of place!

The next place I went was a wildlife refuge and stayed in a hut with elephant grass for a roof and a mosquito net over the bed for very obvious reasons I would find out later. What a joy lying in bed and listening to the calls of the zebras, elephants, and hyenas while monkeys ran across the roof playing with one another. I had the best time here getting to see so much of the African wildlife by a walking tour as well as by vehicle. (see below the type of hut I stayed in at the park)

While on a night move in our safari vehicle I got to see one of my favorite African animals eating their favorite meal with the family…hyenas. Call me crazy I think they are beautiful and the way they sound like they’re laughing just cracks me up.   Another favorite, the beautiful leopard which I was told was one animal that was very elusive and that we probably wouldn’t see one. Well on the same night seeing the hyenas we were riding along and I looked down on the road where we were driving and there were two baby leopards.  Our guide stopped the vehicle so we could get a good look and I don’t know what came over me I jumped out of the vehicle to pet them! Our guide went insane, screaming at me in a foreign language and grabbing his rifle haha when he calmed down he said in English “are you crazy? the mother could be lying in the trees waiting to jump out and kill you!” Well I wasn’t thinking about that.

On our walking safari our guides carried rifles

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About to cross the river infested with hippos and crocodiles.

just in case the wildlife got a little too wild. We got to the river where we had to get into a canoe to get across and made a few attempts. We ended up turning around and coming back at least three times due to all the hippos and crocodiles in our path.  If you know anything about the hippo, they may look like they are cute and slow but they are actually one of the most vicious and fast animals on land and water.  There was quite the anxiety there thinking we would be thrown out of the boat and eaten by multiple predators at any moment.

Later on my friend would take me to the bazaar where the locals had their handmade items. There was such an abundance of talent with beautiful artwork, sculptures, and basketry and the best part was my friend said they like to trade their work for items like ink pens and fishing flies which was very hard to believe but most would trade for items not money. I bought some fantastic artwork there along with several hand carved masks and beautiful baskets.  Definitely worth visiting the bazaar if you make it over.

I also was able to go to one of the native villages where people lived in a type of mud hut with elephant grass on the roofs.  The people were dressed in typical native dress and jewelry which their ancestors had probably worn something very similar thousands of years before.  They were so friendly and welcoming and couldn’t wait to show us everything in their village, their food, the jewelry, how they made their artwork, how they made the roofs on their homes.  All the children would run up to us and they loved touching my hair.  It was a good visit for a day.

The friends of the family I was staying with later decided to take me over to Zimbabwe to show me the famous Victoria Falls.  The drive there was quite the adventure in itself. Turns out there was some sort of civil war going on in the region and in those countries when the military stops your vehicle and tells you to drive them somewhere you have to comply or risk some unpleasantness shortly after saying no.  I also found out one night after being stopped by a military tank that there was a curfew and I had violated it, how interesting.  These are the things you should find out about before you violate laws in foreign countries.

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Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe

So once we get to the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, we had to check in with the border guards and answer a bunch of questions about why we were crossing the border, how long we were staying and so on.  One of the guards asked to see my passport, I said passport? why would I need a passport on me to cross the border? Well that set off a bad reaction with the guard and before I knew it they were threatening to arrest me. Luckily the people I was staying with had a small discussion in the corner and probably some money exchanging to keep me out of the pokey.  Anyway when we finally arrived at Victoria Falls it was absolutely breathtaking and as many natural wonders are pictures cannot do it justice. They told me that the water had been up in recent months and this was one of the fullest they had seen the falls in years so I went at a good time.  They had a bridge that connected two areas of land in front of the falls so you could get fairly close to it, however to get close to it was to be drowned in water from the mist.  A fun fact is this particular picture of the falls is of a scene that was actually used in the movie The Last of the Mohicans.

Another fun thing for me was being able to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road. I thought it would be harder driving but it wasn’t.  Using the left hand to shift the gears was definitely a different feel but I did it surprisingly well.  I was a little apprehensive driving on the other side of the road due to all the native people that walked and when vehicles went by them they would get out in the road and try to force you to stop and give them a ride, that is until my friend said ‘oh don’t worry about it you can run them over here and not worry about a ticket’ WHAT??!! are you serious I said but apparently that is a socially acceptable attitude there.  Very strange just how different social norms and cultures can be from country to country.

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Zebras on the run!

Some other things to be mindful of while visiting this area of the world, besides the military and police, is thieves who routinely will steal where they can, of course this is no different than traveling to any country, local thieves will always target tourist as they feel the tourist are carrying a lot of cash or may have a lot of jewelry thinking they are very rich to be able to travel.  Spiders! Very large spiders will be lurking around inside buildings, hotels, homes and so on.  One night while lying in bed I felt something large and rather heavy crawling on my blanket towards my face. I immediately grab the top of the blanket and shook it very hard and then heard something hit the wall. I hollered for the people I was staying with, when they came into my bedroom I said could you turn on the light a minute please.  When the light came on there was no sign of the spider however my door had been open so he could have ran out before my host came in. That’s when they were telling me about these large spiders and told me they were harmless but they said the lizards will bite…great but back to sleep I went anyway.

Another minor issue is water for showers.

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Monkeys at play with the mist of Victoria Falls in the background.

I don’t know if things have really improved that much since I was there as this area remains to be a very poor country that has suffered from violence, war, and dictatorships.  Water was something you could only get twice a day and only during certain times of the day so you had to schedule your showers.

Monkeys are so fascinating to watch and can be quite funny, but be very careful around them while visiting here.  They will appear friendly and will come up to you with no fear, they will even take food right out of your hand but when the food runs out, these monkeys have an attitude to rival a 2 year old brat and they will attack you!  The larger baboons are not only rather vicious they are also quite the little thieves. They will steal from your vehicle and from your person so watch out and be aware when they are around.

If you have children make sure if you visit the local crocodile farm where they raise them from babies that you watch your children carefully.  When I visited there it was very fascinating to see them up close. They were so much bigger than I expected.  The workers there explained that there had been several children that had died at this facility due to parent negligence. Eaten alive by the crocodiles!  Remember this is a foreign country and you cannot sue everybody for everything there as people do in the

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Crocodile Farm

United States.  They will tell you it was your fault and you should have been watching your children better.  Well they do have a point. They do allow you to hold the babies though which was pretty cool.  Notice this small crocodile I’m holding in this picture, he may look very small and nonthreatening however, they are quite strong and I had a hard time holding on to him plus he beat me to death with his tail.

I would advise anyone traveling here to take extra care of not only what you say and do but take care that you don’t hurt yourself bad enough to seek medical care at the hospital.  I took a tour of the hospital to see the conditions. When I visited here so many years ago I had never traveled outside the US before and really didn’t know much about the world and the conditions in which people lived outside the US I mean after all I was only 19 at the time.  The hospital was quite an eye-opening experience for me.  Aids/HIV was just really getting to a fever in the country, remember this is in the 80’s, no one knew much about it and when I went through that hospital I could not believe what I was seeing. Hospital beds would have 2 and 3 people in them, blood would be all over the floor, people were walking through it. Fluids were draining out of people everywhere onto the floor, people would have already died laying there but no one had removed them yet, which brings me to the unforgettable smell of death and disease.  What a site it was and something I will never forget.  If you want a reality check then visit the hospitals in some third world country to get a better perspective on your own life and just how great you have it living in the United States. If you are a little squeamish then I wouldn’t recommend it.

As far as religion goes, many people have been converted to Christianity in this area due to the high number of missionaries. Ancestral native religions however are still noticeable and practiced throughout the country.  People seemed to be very tolerate overall and the interactions I had from civilians were very pleasant.  As I said before the military and local police were a different story but this was during a civil war skirmish when I was there.  It is definitely a trip worth taking if for nothing else than to go to the wildlife refuges and to Victoria Falls.  I would love to go again and I’m sure I would have different perspectives now compared to those of visiting as a young gal of 19. Things are very different than that of a full grown mind.

Please feel free to share your experiences wherever you may have traveled or ask questions about something you want to know more about. Thank you and I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences.