Texas is huge. It is the second largest state in the United States, an area slightly larger than France. When we crossed the border between Louisiana and Texas, the first road sign informed us that El Paso (on the border with Mexico) was about 850 miles away (almost 1,400 km). Thankfully this was not our destination, but it is no wonder that the Texans drive faster and more aggressively than any other US state we visited – they have a long way to go to get anywhere!
Our first stop was in Houston, and since there is little to see – we stayed for whole three days. Maura (such an Irish name!) – our couchsurfing hostess , Mrs. Dermatologist in training and many of her pets received us very warmly. Her husband, a lawyer, was on a business trip in Dubai. Apparently in Houston, there are only two main professions – doctors and lawyers. There are over 100 hospitals in the city, compared with around 70 in London (population of London is over 8 million while there are only over 2 million people living in Houston!). The lawyers protect the very rich and lucrative oil industry.
During our stay Maura convinced us to try the crawfish (yum, yum, although very messy) and invited us to her favourite Tex Mex restaurant Chuy’s, where during Happy Hour Margaritas were half price, and the nachos bar was totally free. If you are hungry and looking for a quick dinner – I do not recommend crawfish! As nice as they are, it takes a lot of work and some skill to get a tiny morsel of meat out of the rock hard shell. We were also introduced to one of those strange TV shows – Duck Dynasty. We did laugh but we didn’t get hooked.
Apart from hospitals and petrochemical companies, there’s actually very little to see in Houston. Of course you could visit NASA’s Space Centre and probably hear the famous quote: “Houston we have a problem” but after the ‘amazing’ rocket launch in Florida I had enough of space stuff. We were in luck though – the annual festival Live Stock and Rodeo was in town. So we went and what a day we had – fun in a true southern style. There was pretty much anything and everything going on there: best cow and best horse competition, pigs races, horse boxes and ranch gates for sale, dozens of food stalls, roller coasters, a petting zoo (an attraction intended primarily for children, but I could not resist the temptation) and sellers of miscellaneous cowboy items.
Our favourite attractions (except the petting zoo) included racing pigs and a competition called “Mutton Button”. The latter involved a bunch of kids of average age of six, to be set down on a back of a sheep. The sheep is then released and instinctively tries to get to its buddies on the other side of the field. The running sheep is like a bucking bronco to the kids and the challenge for the kids is to hang on for grim death until the sheep gets to the other side. No children or animals were hurt, the same cannot be said for the competitors or audiences pride…
We had to try food favourites of such events – namely corndogs (for those of you who don’t know, a corn dog is a sausage on a stick dipped in corn batter and fried in hot oil – surprisingly tasty), and typical southern specialties – deep fried stuff: cheesecake , ice cream, chocolate bars and apparently even stick of butter! We picked fried Oreos. An interesting experience, but not to be repeated – cookies lost their crunch and changed their usual taste, not to mention the unnecessary thousands of calories.
From Houston we drove to Austin, with a little stop in charming San Antonio along the way. San Antonio is famous for Alamo, a place of a battle between the free Texan state and Mexicans in 1836. And although the Texans were defeated, they remained a free state for another ten years, untill they joined USA as its 28th state. But besides the queuing crowds of tourists, San Antonia really is a charming place, with lovely buildings along the San Antonio River and plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants.
Austin, the capital of Texas, is one of the favourite cities in the US and not just amongst Texans. So we had to find out what’s so great about it. And we found the crowds. It turned out that we arrived just in time for a great big musical event, which brought thousands of people from all over the country and beyond to Austin. This event was a festival South by SouthWest (written as SXSW if you are cool). Music was omnipresent. Standing anywhere along the famous 6th Street you could hear at least 3-4 bands playing in the nearby bars, at any one time . It was noisy, hot and crowded. And if this is how I define this festival, it just shows that I’m getting old … well, I guess I am. But we did enjoy the celebration we accidentally happened upon while passing a clothing store Patagonia. The shop was offering live music and free pizza and beer. How could we say no?
In Austin, we experienced for ourselves that in the U.S. there really is no room for pedestrians. We went for a walk to the park and not having any map whatsoever, we simply got lost. Scampering mile after mile, jumping over hedges and wandering along the side of a fairly fast and busy road (in the ditch to be precise because there simply was no other option), we both remembered the pain of our favourite writer Bill Bryson in his book “Walk in the Woods” (we highly recommend reading it – it’s hilarious!) We did somehow finally get back to the house. A house, that for our two day stay in Austin, Sharon kindly shared with us. She wasn’t looking to host any couchsurfers during the festival, but took pity on us when she realised that we were travelling and just happened to hit Austin during this mad festival. Sharon was really cool -a nurse, at night studying business and marketing and investing in rental properties. A true business woman, though without a made-to-measure suit.
The last thing we planned to see before leaving Austin was Mount Bonnell, that promised a nice panorama of the city. When we got to the top, we were approached by a young guy asking to take some pictures of him and his girlfriend. So I took the camera and trying to find the best background, shot a few photos. I was ready to give the camera back and move on but the guy looked a bit dissatisfied with what I had taken and asked me to take a few more. So back I went to my previous spot, and just as I was pointing the lens at them, the guy dropped to one knee and popped the question! I was a bit shocked and moved at the same time. I started shooting like the paparazzi. Afterwards Geoff said that it was a good job I had the camera, as he probably wouldn’t have taken a single picture after the guy asked his girlfriend to marry him. He likes to see unique things through his eyes not the camera, which would not have been useful for this couple. In all fairness you don’t witness moments like this every day. Hopefully they are pleased with the photos and one will end up framed and standing somewhere on top of the fireplace.
Our next stop was Fort Worth. We stayed with Pamela and Mike in their huge, amazing house. It had to be big – they had nine children! Not all of them living with them anymore, but it still was a friendly and busy place. Pamela introduced us to another typical southern speciality – iced tea. You can buy it in McDonalds and in supermarkets in gallon containers. It’s pretty much everywhere and man it is SWEET. Mesmerizingly so…
Geoff really wanted to experience the thrill of Six Flags amusement park, famous for having some of the world’s largest roller coasters. Why someone who does not like heights, wants to get into one of those cars, that climbs painfully slowly to a height of 25 floors, to roll almost vertically down the other side at a speed of 137 kph, is beyond me. Not that I’m such a tough cookie – maybe I’m not fretting while waiting in a queue for over an hour for this two minute scare ride, but when the cars begin to roll down, within seconds I have no clue where up or down is and I can’t control the horrendous squeak coming out of my mouth. Everything would be hunky-dory if it wasn’t for the massive queues and technical difficulties with the rides … in a few hours that we spent in the park we were able to ride only two rollercoasters. Three separate times we had been in a queue for over an hour only to be told to go away due to one problem or another. Never underestimate the power of complaint email though – we got full refunds, so we can’t really complain. A couple months later we read in the news, that a woman actually fell out of one of the cars during the ride on Texas Giant (one of the two we did get to ride on!) and died. I don’t think we’ll be going on any more rollercoasters, ever.
In Fort Worth we had to check the Stock Yards too. We even managed to get into a rodeo show – a bunch of crazy guys trying to ride the rather furious bulls…and how do they manage to put a lasso around those animals too?
On our way out of Texas we passed through Dallas. Not much there for tourists apart from the obvious. We stopped for a couple of hours to see Dealey Plaza – the place of the assassination of President Kennedy. There’s an ‘X’ on the street marking the position of the car, when the bullet hit the young president. The building from which Lee Harvey Oswald ALLEGEDLY pulled the trigger, is now a museum. I did write ‘allegedly’ because this is exactly what the information plaque at the front of the building says. There are plenty of conspiracy theories, a lot of which you can hear if you stop just for a few minutes outside the Sixth Floor Museum. We did and I must admit that there’s something in them…
And so, still debating about the conspiracy theories we heard in Dallas, we were leaving Texas, heading towards Arkansas, and slowly making our way back to Orlando.