Traveling Along with Steve & Jan

January ~ March 2007


From Weslaco, Texas to Laredo, Texas


               We left the Pinewoods of eastern Texas where we had volunteered at Rusk State Park and the Texas State Railroad during the month of December.  Our route took us through San Antonio, Texas.   While in San Antonio, we wanted to visit with our dear friend Sloange Hopkins and her family.  One of their favorite restaurants and ours too, is the China Pearl, an all you can eat buffet with fresh seafood and a fantastic assortment of soups, salads, and entries.   We had a wonderful evening of great food and great conversation catching up on a years’ worth of happenings.  Then, all too soon, it was time to head for the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Roma, Texas.

We are staying at Falcon State Park located on the banks of Falcon Lake.  The Lake is a source of recreation used for fishing, swimming, and boating.  The Falcon Dam, built in the early 1950’s creating the lake, controls the amount of water flow on the Rio Grande River.   The Dam also generates hydroelectric power.   The River’s water, which begins in Colorado, travels 2,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.  All of the water is used by landowners for agricultural purposes.

On Christmas Day, the Falcon State Parks Friends Group hosted a potluck ham dinner for the volunteers and visitors at the Recreation Hall.  There are four volunteer couples who man the recreation hall.  These dedicated volunteers provide snacks and cook daily lunches and weekly dinners for those of us staying at Falcon Park.  They operate a laundry facility and organize craft projects and game nights.  These activities are great social get together and at the same time help the Friends Group raise moniess for the many projects taking place in the Park and all monies raised benefits Falcon State Park.

We began our volunteer assignment at the Roma Bluffs World Birding Visitor’s Center right after Christmas.  Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is located in the historic district of a city named Roma.  The Roma Bluffs Visitor Center was officially opened to the general public in the month of December.  This Center is a combined effort of the World Birding Center Corporation, The Texas Parks and Wildlife, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the City of Roma.   Smokey Cranfill, the Project Manager and our Volunteer Coordinator, has worked tirelessly over the past 7 years on this $1.8 million dollar facility.

As you can imagine, there were boxes to move, displays and cabinets to assemble, computers and cash registers to connect, and a fantastic array to items to place on the shelves of the gift shop.  A team of four volunteer couples worked long and hard to organize the Center.  There were so many projects that needed attention so, we made daily lists of “to do” items.   Chuck and Donna Satterfield, from Washington, Iowa made bulletin boards and Jan made signs to display on the boards.  Bruce Burton worked on plant identification in the native garden while Cathy Bjourd figured out how the cash register worked and organized the gift shop.  Bruce and Cathy are from St Paul City, Minnesota.   Steve was busy obtaining information to establish a mailing address (the building had been unoccupied for many years).   Then, there were the day to day operations such as learning how the security system operated and where we were going to store the informational brochures.   As you can imagine, there was plenty of tasks that needed everyone’s attention.

In the middle of January, two more couples arrived to volunteer at the World Birding Center.  Mary and Dan Gatlin, also from Minnesota and Wanda and Roy Moore, from Dinwiddie, Virginia will be helping to keep the Visitor Center open seven days a week.   Roy got busy getting the phones and fax machine up and running while Wanda and Mary operated the gift shop.  Dan keeps the grounds pristine including the fountain outside our entrance on the historical Roma plaza.  We met the Moores when we volunteered last summer in North Carolina.  We encouraged them to spend their winter in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and enjoy some Texas hospitality.   Each of the five couples has abilities different from each other and together we make a great team. 

We had the opportunity to work with the Roma Independent School District on Several different projects.  We represented the Roma WBC for a career day at the elementary and middle schools.   We also manned a booth at the high school where we provided information regarding the Youth Conservation Corp, a summer employment program for students 15 – 18 years of age. 

One of the best benefits of traveling the countryside and volunteering is meeting new and interesting people.  Such was the case when we met Velma Arevalo from the Central Office of Roma’s ISD.  Velma helped us make and distribute the informational pamphlets and brochures we distributed in the schools.   She introduced us to the best restaurants in Roma and Rio Grande Cities. 

Being interviewed by the Roma Gladiator Television Network (GTN), part of the Roma High School Performing Arts Program, was one of the highlights of our volunteer experience in Roma.  We worked with Mr. Escobar, GTN teacher, and Lilia Muniz, a senior reporter, to tape and televise an informational program on the newly opened Roma WBC.  The program was taped by five cameramen, all students.  Broadcasting on public television, the students did a fantastic job introducing the WBC to the students and the community of Roma. 

The Roma ISD had a board member appreciation night at the High School.  Velma invited us to attend the event.  We accepted the invitation and invited the other Roma WBC Volunteers to join us for the evening.  Five Mariachi bands performed during the evening and the music was superb.  Steve expressed all of our feelings when he said that although the evening’s entertainment was free, he would have gladly paid for tickets.  We look forward to visiting new and interesting places in the Valley with Velma’s assistance.

One of our goals while volunteering in the Valley was to visit each of the border towns in Mexico.  Mexico is an ancient, exciting land filled with scenic beauty and a charm all its own.   From the music of the strolling mariachis to the sizzling cabrito (baby goat) and frosty Margaritas to the vendors lining the streets with intriguing wares, there is something for everyone in Mexico. 

We have visited Nuevo Laredo – where we each ate a small cake in the park; Reynosa – where we enjoyed a family circus in the park; Matamoros – where we ate at the famous Garcia’s; Nuevo Progresso – where we shopped for art and crafts from all over Mexico, Miguel Aleman – where we went for lunch while volunteering in Roma; Diaz Ordaz – where Jan indulged in garlic shrimp dinner.  We met our goal and have visited every border town in the Rio Grande Valley.

For our first crossover to Mexico, we walked to Ciudad Miguel Aleman directly across from Roma.  We strolled through the streets looking at fancy floral bouquets in flower shops and checking out their retail stores.  We met a gentleman who had a very interesting business.  At Easter, a Mexican tradition is to break confetti filled eggs over someone’s head.  This action is said to bring good luck to the person who has confetti on their head.  We met a man who puts the confetti into the empty egg shell.   Then, he paints a delicate picture on the side of the egg.  The cost is $3.50 for 18 eggs.  Oh, how we wanted to bring some of these Mexican Easter eggs back to the states.   But, one is not allowed to bring such items across the border and into our country.

Now to tell you a bit about the city of Roma, Texas.  The town was established in 1760 along a steamboat route on the Rio Grande River.   Steamboats bought goods from Europe and the town flourished with European merchant trading goods between Europe, United States, and Mexico.  There grew a need for a Customs House, built in 1783, to regulate the goods that moved across the ferry between the United States and Mexico, in Roma.  Today, behind the rebuilt Custom House is a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande River and is just a stones throw from the Mexican border.

Roma Bluffs attracts bird watchers from around the world.  Migratory birds from two flyways, one down the Mississippi River and the other through the central states, converge into this area.  Two flyways from Mexico also converge into this area.  As a result over 500 species of birds and 300 species of butterflies call the Roma area home.

The Roma Bluffs Visitor’s Center is located in two connected, refurbished historical buildings.  The Margo Family came from France and built their home in 1850 and the Ramirez Family built their attached home and store in 1870.  Today, you can see the division between the house and the store.  During the remodeling, the walls of the Ramirez home revealed painted murals.  The backyard was used by Civil War soldiers stationed in the town.  The purpose of the Visitor Center is to disseminate information to the estimated 90,000 annual visitors of the Rio Grande Valley.

Across the River from Roma lies a busy Mexican city by the name of Miguel Aleman. There are two bridges crossing the river at this point.  One is a modern, concrete bridge used by foot and vehicle traffic.  The other bridge is a 770 foot long suspension bridge built by the Civil Conservation Corp in 1928.  This suspension bridge is the only one of its kind on the entire 800 miles Texan/Mexican border.  At this time there is no traffic using this bridge. However, in the near future it will reopen to foot traffic only.  During our lunchtime, while volunteering at the Visitor’s Center, we would walk across the bridge for a bite to eat.  We found two restaurants within two blocks of the border that represent traditional Mexican cooking.  The menus are in Spanish and usually no one in the Restaurants speaks English.

One restaurant was rather fancy with its tablecloths, painted wall mural, and a menu which included hamburgers.  The other restaurant was plain and the walls had not been painted in years.  No tablecloths here just plastic banquet tables.  But the food was excellent!  Our favorite items were the chili de renino, better known as stuffed peppers, and Cameron de cocktail, or shrimp cocktails de ate Mexican.  Every time we ate at this restaurant, we had the same waitress.  She could not speak a lick of English and our Spanish is terrible.   Yet, she always had a smile and seemed to enjoy helping us order our meals.

Being a short drive from the Mexican town of Progresso, we were able to get our teeth checked and cleaned.  The basic cost of most procedures is $20.00.  That means a cleaning is $20, a filling is $20, and an X-ray is $20.  Some procedures like a root canal and caps may cost up to $175 each; but, the cost of dental work in Mexico is generally a fourth of the cost in the United States.  We are very pleased with the quality of the work (Jan has been going to the same Mexican dentist for the past three years).  Roy and Wanda, our Visitor Center Volunteers, are having their dental work performed by the same Dental Office and they too are extremely pleased with the quality and cost of their dental care. 

Progresso’s Main Street is chock – full of vendors selling everything from Pharmaceuticals to hats.  Medications are inexpensive in Mexico and are available without prescriptions (except for controlled medications).  Silver jewelry is very inexpensive and of quite good quality.  Jan bought silver bracelets for $6.00 a piece and a silver necklace for $9.00; while, Steve bought a silver belt buckle with a gold boot on it for $9.00.  Everything is negotiable; and, if one vendor does not make good deals another will make a great deal.

Falcon State Park, our home base, is located on Falcon Lake.   This Lake is part of a dam and reservoir system and is fed by the Rio Grande River.   Wanda and Roy Moore, our co-volunteers at WBC, and us had the great educational opportunity to tour this facility.

The purpose of the Dam to control flood waters, promote conservation and produce hydroelectric power.  It was constructed by the United States and Mexico pursuant to the Water Treaty of 1944.  The U.S. cost was $53 million.  There are two hydroelectric plants built and operated exactly alike.  The U.S. plant and the Mexico plant each have three 10,500 k.w. generators. The U.S. plant and the Mexico plant each have three 14,750 h.p. turbines. If needed, each plant has the capacity to install an additional unit.  The U.S. flood control benefits, since the Dam creation, are over a quarter of a billion dollars.  Each hydroelectric plant shares in the control of the water distribution.  Farmers and cities along the Rio Grande River notify the water master from their respective countries their water needs and the amount of water released by each country is equal on a monthly basis.  Each country helps the other to maintain the dam and make necessary repairs.  

Rio Grande City, located east of Roma, has a population of over 10,000 people and has many interesting events and historical venues.  One such venue is the LaBorde Hotel which is oldest hotel in the city.  This Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.   The LaBorde House was designed in Paris in 1893 by French architects and construction was completed in 1899.  Located one block from the Rio Grande River, the LaBorde House was originally the home of Francoise LaBorde and served as travelers’ way – station for many years.  Early – day guests included those traveling to Texas political events, riverboat and wagon travelers, cattle barons who sold their herds on nearby river docks, and military officers in route to California.  In the style of the Victorian period, each of the seven grand bedrooms has a name commemorating a bit of local history.  The “Chez” Restaurant, famous for its Mexican cuisine, is part of this historical building

Vaquero Days, an annual event held in Rio Grande City, is held in celebration and honor of the Mexican and American vaquero (cowboy).  The Valley was the hob of ranching activities during the 1800’s – a place where the vaquero contributed to the patrimony and heritage culture of South Texas.  There was a rodeo, music, food, a trail ride, a cook – off, and arts and crafts booths.  It was a full day of fun and a chance to meet the folks of Rio Grande City.

In Mission, Roy and Wanda Moore rode the River Tour aboard the Riverside Dreamer with us.  For an hour, we rode down the Rio Grande River viewing birds, learning about nature, and sightseeing on this crooked River.  Afterwards, we ate at the Riverside Club which has outdoor seating on the river’s edge.

The sole remaining hand – drawn ferry in the United States connects the U.S. with Diaz Ordaz, Mexico.  The ferry holds three cars and several people.   We parked on the U.S. side and rode across and back for $1.00 each.  The ride across the Rio Grande River takes about five minutes.  After walking up a small hill, we hopped into a taxi and for $5.00 we rode into Diaz Ordaz, another five minute ride.  We told the taxi driver we wanted Cocktail de Cameron (shrimp cocktail).   He stopped at a small restaurant in the downtown area.  As we said, the garlic shrimp was delicious.  The downtown was clean and the retail shopping area had a variety of stores.

The first tour group to Roma’s WBC came from Alamo Rose RV Park in Alamo, Texas.  Pat and Gary Jeffries secured a big, red bus and 46 people from the central part of the Valley while we organized the informational tour stops.  Jan hopped on board the big, red bus just as it entered Roma.  Steve led the bus through town to the first stop , Falcon State Park.  There the group was treated to a bird watching experience and was shown a video about birds of prey.  Lunch was served by the Friends of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Park’s support group.   After lunch, the bus transported the people to the Roma Bluffs Overlook where the habitat of birds and animals along the River was explained.  Next, the group walked to the Visitor’s Center where we presented information about the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  After taking a group photo, the folks from Alamo Rose board the big, red bus and headed back to Alamo.  Thanks Pat and Gary and the folks from Alamo Rose for your support of the Roma Bluffs WBC

The word is getting out that Roma Bluffs WBC has great programs.  Jan wrote two environmental education programs for students in grades 5th – 8th.  Although these programs are geared for school age children, they may be altered to instruct just about any age category.  In addition to Alamo Rose RV Park, two school groups and two RV parks scheduled programs, during the month of March, at the Visitor’s Center.  We are pleased that these groups would make the effort to learn more about the World Birding Corridor and the Roma area. 

Our goal to visit Mexico’s border towns and establish a beginning interpretive program at Roma Bluffs WBC has been met.  It is time to begin our adventure back to Ohio.  It will be difficult to say good bye to the many wonderful people who live and work in the Valley.  But, we will be back this fall to begin an educational, outreach program for the people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. 

Stay tuned for more “Traveling Along With Steve and Jan".

Take Care & Safe Travels,

Steve & Jan