The middle seat assigned to me on the Boeing 747 KLM non-stop flight from Amsterdam to Houston is unfortunate, but the company of my window seat-neighbor more than makes up for any inconvenience caused by the limited leg room. Tony, a 56 year-old Irishman from Cork, is on his way to the wedding of his friend’s niece. This friend is also his brother’s ex-wife and she and Tony have continued their close relationship.
Tony wins me over straight away with his very Irish way of pronouncing his favorite adjective: “FAAN-TAAAAS-TIC”. We quickly bond over travel stories and agree that we are both lucky for getting to see the world. Tony recently left his manager job at a big insurance firm and now works twenty hours a week at a local private medical services company doing office work – and loving it. Hearing him talk about his career switch reassures me that pursuing freelance writing is the right thing for me to do.
After smoothly clearing U.S. Customs, I am picked up by José, my first ever Couchsurfing host. We drive his silver SUV over many of Houston’s concrete freeways to Empire Café, a laid-back coffee bar inside a renovated gas station. The barista showcases his skills on my latte and I treat my host to a humongous piece of cake. José, forty-three, explains to me that Houston leads the U.S. in population growth. The Houston metro area counts more than six million inhabitants, making it the fifth biggest in the U.S. My host points out that the increase is not only due to immigrants coming from Central and Latin America. After hurricane Katrina, Houston welcomed thousands from neighboring Louisiana as well.
José’s parents moved from Mexico to America in the early 1970s. His father has passed away since, but José, who was born in the U.S., is tight with his mum and sister who live only a few blocks away. In response to my question about identity, José asserts he identifies as Texan first, American second and after that, Mexican. He’s adamant that Texans are unlike any other Americans I will encounter and that Texas would happily secede from the Union if given the chance. The Lone Star State might be special, but I doubt whether it would cut it flying solo.
I decide to spend the only full day I’ve got in Houston exploring downtown. After a bus and rail commute lasting an hour and a half, I reach the Museum District. Before hitting the Museum of Fine Arts, I stop by at The Breakfast Klub – a Beyoncé and Jay-Z Houston favorite, according to my Lonely Planet – for a quick lunch.
The museum highlights Islamic, Asian and pre-Columbian art. There’s also a section that features items up for sale at auction. For most objects bidding starts at a thousand dollars. The exhibits are excellent and I’m amazed that admittance to the museum is free. Next up is Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.
After a fifteen minute walk I happen upon the campus grounds of Thomas University. Soon, I’m surrounded by a handful of students who, like me, have decided to enjoy the sunshine and the free WiFi, both abundantly present at the patio opposite the campus store. I start writing my first road trip blog, recounting my day and a half in Houston, adding finishing touches to it at my last stop of the day, the microbrewery heaven The Hay Merchant Bar.
A little jet-lagged, but excited my U.S. road trip has finally begun, I realize there’s infinite room to move ahead of me. Super host José texts me he’s ready to pick me up. Tomorrow, Amtrak will take me to New Orleans. I can’t wait.