Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 2)

Our first full day in the USA began with us waking up early. Despite our tiredness the crossing of time zones meant that we were both alert before 6am. Our emergence from our room was to the sounds of numerous children. With Christine’s two, Jessie and Samuel, plus the five children of David and Kelly who were currently at home, we had lots of kids to entertain us. Downstairs we found a wonderful cooked breakfast thanks to Kelly and Christine. Best of all, much of the day was spent at the house (which is large and beautiful) in The Woodlands, a large development in the north of the Houston area, which suffered quite a bit of damage from Hurricane Ike back in September, 2008.

Late in the day, however, we were back off to George Bush International Airport to book some flights with the money that Northwest had given us on the previous day. Our online research turned up the option of flying from Albuquerque to Los Angeles (at the end of our time in the USA) via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. We also decided to make another internal trip to Baltimore, Maryland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we chose our dates for this trip around when the local baseball team, the Orioles, would be playing at home. After researching online we tried to book the tickets over the phone however because the English had given us the credit on paper the Americans, who only use electronic credit these days, weren’t able to do so and we had to visit an office.

That evening, when we returned from the airport, Meg was able to fulfil one of her life long ambitions and see Rod Stewart in concert. There were around 20 000 people at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (which has been completely repaired after it had suffered major damage during Ike) and they were able to experience Rod performing some of his old favourites such as ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Downtown Train’, as well as some hints of what he will be releasing in December. Meg, David and Kelly had a great time, but felt that it might have been better had his shoes matched his trousers. There was lots of interesting people watching to be done as well.

The following morning saw David and Wayne disappear to a local park to play football (although some of the heathens they were playing with occasionally referred to it as soccer). Many of the guys regularly play for a team called Bear Branch and play an annual ‘us vs. them’ game (which used to be the UK versus the rest of the world, but has become a U.S.A versus the rest of the world, due to people gaining citizenship). Sadly for Wayne the temperature was on its way to 98°F (about 36°C) and the humidity was very high. At the end of the first 45 minutes Wayne lay down and struggled to get up again, however he had recovered enough to play in goal for the latter stages of the second half. It was all good fun and a nice introduction to the country.

In the afternoon we went for a drive to the local mall at the Woodlands to grab some supplies and to encourage Christine’s kids to have an afternoon nap. Wayne was deposited at Borders book store, while Meg and Chris drove around the local area. It was a beautiful golf course community with very established trees, in contrast to most of the rest of the area. Meg and Chris joked that it looked like the Brady Bunch’s neighbourhood and was probably the original settlement before the area really got developed.

That evening Chris drove Meg and Wayne into the centre of Houston for something that Wayne had been looking forward to ever since they had found out they were going to be visiting the USA. Major League Baseball team the Houston Astros play at Minute Maid Stadium in the centre of the city and that night there was a game between them and the New York Mets. We had booked tickets over the internet beforehand and had an excellent spot down the 1st base line. Minute Maid is relatively new (it is celebrating the 10 year anniversary) and has a retractable roof, so it is an indoor stadium which still has natural grass on the field. This meant that, despite the heat and humidity outside it was a lovely night on the inside of the stadium.

One of the things that we discovered about baseball in the United States is that the game is only part of what is happening. In between innings there were all sorts of distractions; with people being encouraged to kiss for the big screen (it didn’t focus on us), t-shirts being fired into the crowd, sing-a-longs, and special presentations being done on the field. In front of us were a couple with an 18 month girl. She had a fabulous time toddling back and forth laughing at the strange couple behind her who were paying her so much attention. She particularly liked lifting the seat up and down, seemingly making the strange man rock backwards and forwards. At the end of the 7th inning, when they got up to leave, her parents made sure she said ‘Goodbye’ to the strange Australians (other members of the crowd around us had been very friendly, wanting to know all about us). All in all, it was lots of fun and for those interested in the result, Mets 10 Astros 3.

After the game we got the opportunity to wander a bit through down town Houston. Because of traffic concerns the roads immediately around the stadium were closed to cars, so cycle rickshaws were roaming for customers. Not far away were a series of old church bells, displayed out on the street, which adults and kids alike were taking the opportunity to ring (Meg succumbed to temptation). Houston is very concerned for the history of the city and there were signs giving information on each street corner, as well as on significant buildings.

Houston was founded in 1836 when Texas was an independent republic with its own President, Sam Houston, for whom the city was named. Not long after it became the capital of that Republic, and there is a certain independent spirit about all Texans (and Houstonites in particular) which still reflects that fact. These days it is the fourth largest city in the United States and the largest within Texas (although the state capital is in Austin). It has been the centre of much important American history over the last century and a half, with a significant role in the Civil War and World Wars I & II. Many significant Americans have come from Houston and that is reflected in the way the city celebrates history.

Our trip home was uneventful but late and Monday morning saw us giving David and Kelly an opportunity to get out of the house. Because of the heat and humidity all of the younger kids took the opportunity to go out into the backyard and use the slip and slide. The afternoon was spent back at the Mall, where Meg and Chris got the opportunity to actually look through some of the shops and Wayne was deposited at Barnes and Noble (a few more trips like this and he will have finished reading the book). Samuel and Jessie had a lovely time playing on the equipment in the mall. Shopping in Texas is particularly fun, with things like cowboy boots and hats being a feature, even outside of the specialty Texas store. Sports stores were almost exclusively focussed on the local university teams, University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

One of the things that people outside of the States associate with Houston is the phrase, ‘Houston, we have a problem’. Tuesday saw us travelling to south Houston to the NASA Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre. As well as being the form of a museum devoted to the history of the United States’ travels into space, the Johnson Centre is also the training centre for current space shuttle astronauts and the planning base for their future endeavours. During a tour of the facility we saw the models of shuttles and the space station that are used to familiarise the astronauts with the environments. There were also some of the rockets from previous space expeditions. We also got to hear more about the expectation that there will be a space station on the moon sometime around 2020 with further travel to the moon by 2030.

Even more interesting was the film and interactive display which took place inside the main building. As well as dealing with the history of the space programme we were able to experience a replica of one of the control rooms for a space expedition. One of the staff was then able to take us through what was happening on the television screens behind her which had shots of the actual control rooms which are currently operating for the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle mission which was in space at the time. We were able to watch what was happening in real time, and find out more about the objectives of the mission and the people who were both aboard the shuttle and the space station. This was the best part of the visit, with the member of staff being incredibly knowledgeable and informative and an opportunity to ask any questions we wanted at the end of the time.

The centre was also hosting a tribute to George Lucas and his films which included models of some of the major characters and items such as scripts, cars, and other props from their making. While the Star Wars films were predominant, there was also memorabilia from the Indiana Jones films, ‘American Graffiti’, ‘THX 1138’, and ‘Tucker: The Man and his Dream’. With this, the various displays related to the actual space programme, a huge gift shop, and an enormous playground area with a space theme there was something for everyone to see and do. We hunted down information about the mission which featured Andy Thomas as Australia’s first astronaut (STS-114). We also saw the tributes to Columbia and Challenger and, because it is 40 years since Apollo 11 went to the moon, there was an enormous amount of material available relating to that mission.

Our trip back to the Woodlands was uneventful, except in giving us some more exposure to the Houston traffic, which is not renowned for being good. When we got back it was time to head out for dinner at a standout local Mexican restaurant. Rico’s was great, with the willingness of the manager to find seating for 10 people, take a variety of orders from both the children and adults menu, and get us served incredibly quickly with some fabulous Mexican food. If you are ever in the Woodlands it is well worth the visit. (PS. We don’t receive anything for our restaurant reviews, or anything else we write, if it is in here it is because we think it is worth it).

As David, Kelly and most of the kids were going out to a concert, we got a lift home with Brittany. This was the only opportunity that we had had to speak with her (she had been at her college in Alabama for most of our visit) and it was interesting to hear about her course in Interior Design and talk about what opportunities it opened for the future. Once again we had experienced the openness and friendly, welcoming nature of the people of Texas. Because it was our final night before our trip up to Baltimore we got everything packed up and into the car ready for the following day.

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