I arrived in Houston with no expectations or plans. With less than 24 hours there at the start and end of my trip it was very much a stopover. But this city treated me very well indeed.
First impressions as we land, and I exit the airport, is how huge it is. It very much reminded me of Christchurch with how flat and sprawling it is, with rural outlying areas. The airport is a very long way from the CBD and you’re on proper freeway, lane upon lane of spaghetti like road, intertwined with over passes and exits. It’s like L.A but without the glamour of the hills and palm trees. To be honest, it’s an uninspiring place to arrive in.
My shuttle driver, Michelle, was a lovely lady who let me sit up front with her as we listened to Taylor Swift on the radio. Some things, like Taylor, are universal – which is a comfort. Michelle is from Lafayette, which I will pass through on the train tomorrow. I promised her I’d wave hello as we passed. I need to look up the history of this town, and the connection to the man Lafayette, as I always knew the name from past visits to Paris and New York, and now more recently I learned about the man himself, via Hamilton – so I get the reason for him being a namesake in these places. Of course I just picture a hot Daveed Diggs as this American Legend, and the reality of him is probably significantly less dreamy. But hey, bless you Hamilton, for teaching the like of me American History since 2016.
After checking into the hotel, in Downtown, which I picked due to the proximity to the central train station, which I’ll be needing tomorrow, it was mid afternoon. I only slept around 3 hours on the flight and was knackered but decided to head out and resist the temptation to shower and nap.
The Spanish and Mexican influence on Houston is huge. I guess it makes sense, but with Texas we’re led to think of BBQ’s and Southern food. This influence is a very great thing as there is little I love more than Mexican food and beer and there were taco and tequila bars everywhere. All announcements and radio stations in shops and restaurants are in Spanish, and I always find this strangely comforting. Maybe it’s the idea of background noise without actually having to pay attention to what is being said?
The little research I’d done about Downtown Houston was that it was a bit of a dead zone but it was a great place to stay with so many bars, cafes and restaurants lining the blocks. There wasn’t a great deal in the way of shops, but that’s no loss for this visit.
It was also very very hot. Again, something I knew, but still a huge shock to the system coming from mid-winter Christchurch and that it was sleeting on the day that I left. But it was lovely being able to ditch layers and tights and return to light dresses.
Determined to make the most of the afternoon, I noticed a light rail / tram system running up Main Street, found a ticket machine and snagged a single trip – knowing nothing about how it worked or where it ran. But for $1.75 a ticket, which lasts three hours, it seemed like incredible value and an effortless, air-conditioned way to get my bearings, in what seemed like a very expansive city.
The spirit of the wanderer was kind to me, as the train took me all the way up Main Street (which turned out to be a really really long road) past all kinds of interesting looking areas (including an amazing looking flower district, full of incredible florists and wholesalers, which I might try to revisit on my return) and after about ten minutes reached a stop called the Museum District, which was sounded like a perfect spot to get off.
As I stepped back into the heat, a very welcome sight immediately greeted me directly across the road – the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – along with banners advertising an exhibition of contemporary Mexican art. A very great sign indeed, and the most worthwhile, easy, way to spend a couple of hours.
I’d done a spot of reading about how rich Houston’s art’s scene was, and the quality of the galleries – but I had no idea quite how great. There’s so many other galleries and museums I’d like to check out – and again, hope to do so when I come back at the end of this trip for another 24 hours- but this was a great place to start.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is split over two buildings, separated by a road / underground tunnel, and each building is three levels each. There were three special, paid-entry, exhibitions on including a big Ron Muek show – which is funny timing as Christchurch Art Gallery has literally just announced a fundraising campaign for one of his pieces to be part of our own permanent collection. Due to limited time, I just paid for the Mexican show, as Mexican art and culture is one of my favourites, and really couldn’t risk missing it.
The rest of the gallery was free to go around and I really was utterly blown away by how much of the good shit was in there – huge Renaissance master pieces, Picasso, Warhol, Monet, Kandinsky, plus a lot of Roman and Egyptian artefacts and sculptures – the greatest hits of an art gallery all in a large, but manageable space (say, compared to the MET or Louvre which takes hours if not days to navigate and can be totally overwhelming). I even stumbled upon a fantastic large Damian Hirst medicine cabinet in the basement whilst a little lost – it was just casually tucked away like it was no big deal, and no one was taking any notice of it – I love little finds like that.
Connecting the two buildings was an underground tunnel which doubled as a totally immersive, walk-through, light installation, that was lit neon red and purple, like some kind of Stanley Kubrick / Bladerunner scene. It was selfie mayhem, which I actually loved because it meant you didn’t feel like a complete dick when you wanted to take you own selfie. It’s like that here. No judgement. Everyone does it.
The Mexican exhibition was fabulous – all 20th century pieces from propaganda and protest posters to surrealism, film, abstract and cubism. Just utterly inspiring. I love the heritage and culture behind mexican art, and how the completely morbid and macabre can be depicted in such a bright, bold and flamboyant way. I guess it’s like my happy-sad songs that I adore of the Cure and the Smiths – I just like harsh and depressing things cloaked in a jangly and bright disguise.
I left the gallery after a couple of hours and headed back to the hotel via a great authentic New York style pizza place where the slices and Mexican beer are $3. Bliss.
I dunno how you’re meant to eat a slice of pizza down here in the South, so I ate it how you get taught in New York: add your oregano, Parmesan and chilli flakes, pick it up, fold it in half lengthways and chomp. My pepperoni and jalapeño slice was the perfect way yo tide me over until dinner, and it’s the greatest, cheap and easy snack going.
After a quick freshen up at the hotel I headed out for another little explore and to find dinner. I was delayed by about an hour as a thunderstorm came in just as I was about to head out – crazy thunder, lightening, and heavy rain – all in the tropical heat and patches of sun and bright blue sky. There’s something quite special and magical about it, and the heat means that the rain isn’t really that big a deal and takes the edge off the heat for a bit. It’s well and truly thunderstorm season down here, with the forecast predicting them for every day of my visit. But according to my airport driver, Michelle, they always happen late in the day and never last that long – so I’m just going to use them as a good time for a nap or a beer. Even now as I write this, the big, bulging, fluffy clouds are brewing in the sky and I think it’s a weather pattern I’m going to get to learn a lot about and be able to read, which is cool.
After a bit of a wander I stumbled upon my perfect dinner location – La Calle tacos. A quick Yelp of the place showed it to be a local legend (what would I do without Yelp on these trips? Honestly, just the best for finding the little nooks of places that locals talk about and spy on menus without the awkwardness of having to go inside by yourself only to leave / have regrets). La Calle was an utter delight. A beautiful, modern but character filled fitout. Great prices ($1 tacos on Monday’s!!) and a menu so authentic it’s written in 80% Spanish and just resulted in me awkwardly pointing at things and politely nodding, hoping for the best in terms of what I ended up ordering.
In the end I got a platter of five small tacos, in a mix of beef and chicken. In terms of presentation they were the simplest tacos I’ve ever had – just tortilla, meat and a scattering of raw onion and of lime. With a side serving of beans and rice. But my goodness, they were the best I’ve ever had. It’s such a wanky traveller thing to say but “they were just so authentic, the real deal…man”. The meat was seasoned perfectly, and whilst it may have, by itself, been a tad dry, with the lime, fresh tortilla, and onion they complimented each other perfectly. An example of a few very simple ingredients, done very well, making the perfect mouthful.
I also took a punt on the menu and ordered a side of corn. I was expecting a piece of corn on the cob, but it came as a pot of corn kernels (straight from the cob) layered with polenta, cheese (a crumbly kind, that looked like feta but had the strong aroma and taste of Parmesan), paprika, lime and sour cream. It was utter heaven in a pot – just the right balance of textures and flavours – sweet, spicy, tangy, creamy, fresh – and something that I know I’m going to get sporadic cravings for for years to come and bore people about.
All washed down with a Mexican beer, of course. I love how cheap and accessible great Mexican beer is here. It’s such a luxury at home. Craft beer has arrived here in a big way, but you know, I love the big and cheap bottles of Corona and Samuel Adams that you can get in every corner store for a couple of bucks, to take out to a park, or back to your apartment. Things like that are so cheap and readily accessible here.
I successfully managed to stay out until after nine, and with energy at zero, and need for sleep, that was my day. Hoping that a full nights sleep, on this weird new Timezone (17 hours difference?), will minimise any potential jet lag and body clock disruption.
I always love visiting America. And as a destination, it’s the perfect example of how travelling alone makes you more open to meeting people and engaging in conversation. I think you put yourself out there more when it’s just you, and Americans are always too happy to start a discussion and tell you about their lives.
Some people might see travelling alone as an invitation for vulnerability or loneliness, but I don’t feel that way at all. As a New Zealander I’m very lucky – we’re a well-regarded country, and everyone loves my accent (I’ve never been more self-aware and conscious of how Flight of the Concords I sounds than when I hear myself against a southern accent!) – even better, they seem to understand my weird accent. I’ve had two comments on how great my surname is (they don’t have many Sutherland’s here, it seems). And if you see someone cute, it’s perfectly acceptable to make eye contact, smile, and admire them – not even in a dating kind of way – there’s so many beautiful, stylish, black, women here with the greatest hair, complexions and cute summer dresses and I’m like *hearts for eyes emoji*.
America has this reputation of arrogance, or being loud – but the upside to that is that it makes people very hospitable and easy to talk to. It makes NZ feel very buttoned-up and our stuffy and polite English roots, never more apparent. Maybe we could learn a thing or two, y’know? It’s quite nice, and liberating, to make eye contact with people every now and then!
Thank you, for the welcome, Houston.
P.S I will also post my photos as part of this blog – but as I can’t seem to post a gallery in a text post (or at least, I can’t see a way) so will format my daily posts in two seperate parts, with 1) text post then 2) gallery post. Let’s keep lift simple, eh.
Also a reminder that if you’re on Instagram give me a follow over there, as I’ll have a lot of visual posts and stories going on over there – I live for walkabout photos, so if you like street art, architecture, outfits, and food then gimme a like @bonjela_lawson …or somewhere up here *points to top of blog* should be a lil Instagram icon, click that and it’ll link you through. x