New Orleans, Louisiana, crime, poverty, katrina, is New Orleans safe

The Big Easy is harder than you think

Crime in New Orleans Just a block or two from where I was out drinking one night, two people were shot dead and several more injured in altercations that escalated quickly. The next day the local newspaper had a big article about the murders, filled with the usual fist-shaking condemnations of police and politicians. Next to that, though, was a similar-sized article about what effect the shootings would have on tourism. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of New Orleans. It’s a city where decadence meets dangerous and where it’s not just the drink prices that are criminal. New Orleans is one of the most popular destinations for visitors in the US but outside the purring tourist-fuelled economy there’s suburb after suburb of poverty, crime and hopelessness. Hurricane Katrina didn’t help, and it gets most of the attention these days, but it’s not the problem. It merely exacerbated it. There were many...

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08 November
new orleans, swamp, swamp tour, louisiana, alligators, turtles, birds

Rising from the waters

New Orleans swamp tour From the waters, rises new life. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it brought devastation, killing almost 2000 people and causing more than 80 billion dollars of damage. Just outside the city, though, the natural disaster has had an unexpected benefit. The swamplands surrounding the city are an important biological microcosm, home to dozens of species of animals. When the waters rushed through the area in 2005, there was significant damage. But that damage was nature’s way of cleansing the ecosystem. As I discovered on the swamp tour, a large tract of trees and bushland was washed away by the storm surge but in its place a safe and inhabitable area was created for the smaller animals of the water system. We all know how the food chain works – this means that the slightly larger animals suddenly had a steady food supply and the even larger animals were...

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07 November
Best things to do in Austin Texas

The best things to do in Austin

The best things to do in Austin, Texas Austin is a city with its own identity. It’s part-Texan but also part-funky. There’s plenty to do if you like music, the arts, sport or just relaxing. Make sure you give yourself enough time to chill out and enjoy the atmosphere of one of the coolest cities in the south of the USA. Here are a few of the best things to do in Austin. Music on Sixth Street Sixth Street is the heart of Austin. Dozens of bars feature live music with small-time musicians giving a taste of their style, fun cover bands that get the crowd dancing and big international acts that make an effort to put Austin on their touring schedule. You’ll pay a cover charge for the better-known bands but it’s generally free to walk into the other bars and check out a few songs from the up-and-comers. There’s always something...

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06 November
angola rodeo, louisiana state penitentiary, louisiana, rodeo, prison rodeo

Inside maximum security

Angola prison rodeo, Louisiana * Photography was not allowed so all images are courtesy of A maximum security prison in the economically-depressed and socially-repressed part of Louisiana is not the sort of place you should want to end up. But it was exactly where we were heading. We were going to go past the guards, through the fence and into the world of hardened criminals, into the biggest male maximum security prison in the Unites States. Why? Well, for a bit of a laugh, if I’m going to be honest. Each weekend in October, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola puts on a rodeo within its prison grounds. It’s not your ordinary rodeo, though. In this one all the competitors are prison inmates and the rules of normal society don’t exist. Take for instance the event (my favourite) called ‘inmate poker’. Four prisoners sit at a poker table that’s been placed into the...

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27 October
huge treehouse in tennessee, god, jesus, minister, treehouse, crossville

Stairway to Heaven

The tree house in Crossville, Tennessee Try to imagine a conversation that goes a little bit along these lines. “Hey, God.” “Yes.” “Do you want me to do a really cool thing for you?” “Ummm… well, you could go to church and pray or something.” “No, that’s not enough. I want to do something massive. Can I build you a huge monument?” “Well… I’m kind of just happy with peace and goodwill amongst men so…” “Nah, that stuff’s boring. I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to build you the biggest tree house in the world!” “There’s not really anything in The Bible about me needing a tree house so perhaps that goodwill thing could…” “That’s fine, I’ll build it anyway. Thanks God. Nice chatting!” “Wait… urgh.” In 2004, eleven years after this conversation may or may not have happened, minister Horace Burgess finished his project and his fulfilled his promise to a deity. With hard work, faith and (if you believe...

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25 October
Graceland Too, Elvis, Paul MacLeod, Graceland, Holly Springs

How obsession can corrupt a person’s sanity

Graceland Too We had a forewarning about the man and the house we were about to visit. It was to the extent that my travelling companions and I agreed on a code word we would use when it was time to escape. It was a bit of a joke on the way to the house. As it turned out, we needed to use it. Graceland in Memphis may be the spiritual home of Elvis, but an hour’s drive south of the city, in Mississippi, is Graceland Too, the spiritual home of a man who calls himself Elvis as well. His house is a tribute to The King and, as became quickly apparent, a monument to obsession and how it can corrupt a person’s sanity. You can spot Graceland Too as you drive up the street in Holly Springs, a small town rich with Civil War history. It stands out from the antebellum homes...

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24 October
graceland, memphis, tennessee, elvis presley, the king

Long live The King

Visiting Graceland in Memphis Every day flowers and tributes arrive at Graceland, in the small city of Memphis. Sent from fans all over the world, they are placed around the gravesite of the man known by many simply as ‘The King’ and remain there until they wilt or are too weather-damaged to be on display. The strange thing is not how much is sent to his final resting place, but that the tributes are still coming more than thirty years after his death. At his gravesite, in the meditation garden of his former home, visitors still stop and spend a moment in quiet thought as they look down at the bronzed tombstone. “He became a living legend in his own time; earning the respect and love of millions”, says one of the lines of the epitaph. That, in some ways, captures the spirit of his enduring status. In our recent memory is the...

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20 October
Texas state fair, dallas, fried food, ferris wheel, pig racing, state fair of texas

Grease 3: The Texas Fair

Fair food at Dallas, Texas Just when you thought pizza couldn’t get any unhealthier, they gone deep-fried it. Not that it seems out of place at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. Deep-frying the food is pretty much mandatory at the food stalls, which could give you a coronary from just reading the menu. Deep-fried cookie dough, deep-fried salsa and even deep-fried beer are all on offer. The fair’s annual food awards recognise the art that is dunking something perfectly edible into a huge vat of oil until it tastes just like batter and grease. This year the best taste award went to the buffalo chicken in a flapjack while the most creative gong was given to fried bubblegum, which narrowly beat the deep fried pineapple upside down cake. “Oh, it’s just fair food”, people tell us. “You only eat it once a year”, they insist. It seems reasonable until you glance at...

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19 October
Austin, Texas, Austin music scene, lifestyle, South Congress, Sixth Street

Austin City has no limits

All about Austin Texas Austin is a city that likes to remind everyone that it’s a little bit different from the rest of Texas. At the same time, the rest of state treats the city like the artistic nephew that it’s openly proud to have but secretly wishes would just keep to itself. For years, it has fostered the art and music communities and is now one of the hippest places in the USA. When it comes to Austin, ‘Deep South’ refers only to the philosophers who have taken up residence here. It’s a university city and the streets downtown are lined with bars to satiate the thirst of the students. In a somewhat symbiotic way, the musicians use the bars to peddle their latest tunes while the students support the gigs, hoping one day they’ll have bragging rights to discovering ‘the next big thing’. That’s not to say the big name musicians...

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18 October
texas, university of texas, austin, college football, nfl, sport

Religion is faith and sport is religion

College football in Texas It was when the well-spoken fifty year old Texan woman, her hair permed in deference to the sensibilities and social requirements of the Deep South, grabbed the bag of cheap wine offered to her, drank long and hard and then slapped the bag, that I knew we had entered a very different world. We were in Austin at what is described as ‘a tailgate party’, a massive drinks and barbeque warm-up for a college football game. We had come to the city to experience the culture and, even in the vast land of Texas, nothing is as big as this sport. In Texas, religion is faith and sport is religion. There’s a fervour that takes control of people and possesses them when it comes to their local teams. And for this afternoon, we were pulled into the cult and together we all worshipped at one of the largest temples...

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17 October