This year one of my cousins is living and studying in Houston, Texas. As I’m only just across the border these days, just before Christmas time, I decided to join my other cousin on a visit (clearly a family of jet-setters).
We started off in Houston, with my cousin staying in the downtown business district (see above) and me staying a little bit away in a more residential area. I think Houston is very typical of many American towns, especially those in Texas, in the sense that you have to drive everywhere. Countless Uber drivers told me that they made everything in Texas is really big and far away from each other because the state has so much space. It made it strange to walk around almost deserted streets, with the large majority of people who walked or used public transport being homeless. The actual public transport system was very good, efficient and clean. Nonetheless here it’s hardly used – it’s all about cars, cars, cars. The emptiness of the pavements, buses and metro was a pretty stark contrast from other cities I’ve been in.
The first day I was there, I managed to sneak in on my cousin’s free hotel breakfast (win) and then we headed to an art museum called The Menil Collection. It was an odd array of both the bizarre and the wonderful. Ancient artefacts from all across the world, were sat side by side with Picasso sketches. It was an odd mish-mash but one I quite enjoyed.
The next day, we went to the NASA space station! I still feel like the astronaut career path is open to me, I mean, it can hardly be denied Mirain and I look great in a space suit.
It was a really fun day and something that is pretty unique to Houston, and I can’t be the only one who enjoys the sight of a MASSIVE space ship?!
I think one of the most interesting things for me in Houston, and this probably sounds really boring, was just chatting to the Uber drivers. Like I said, it was hard to get around without a car so I used Uber quite a lot, and got to know a few of them. Interestingly there were the highest number of female drivers I’d seen anywhere. One woman, L, was originally from Detroit, and her best friend from high school moved to London twenty years ago. She went to visit him recently and said “you won’t believe it, he’s lost his accent completely, he sounds just like you!” Although, I somehow doubted he sounded like a 20 year old girl from East Dulwich!
L told me about how Uber in Houston is constantly pushing down their wages. Apparently they’re one of the few cities where they don’t have cancellation fees, on top of the fact they were told there was going to be a temporary reduction in rates to encourage new customers months ago, which hasn’t been increased back to normal levels. From what she was describing, it sounded like classic predatory pricing strategies; they reduced the rates so low that competitors who were going to start operating in Houston, such as Lyft, didn’t bother. She seemed like a lovely person, with no one being deserving of poor treatment and exploitation within their workplace. There has been some effective campaigning within London with Uber Eats, so I hope maybe over time drivers in Houston can unionise more and improve their pay.
I had other drivers of Latin American descent, one, A, who’s family is from Puerto Rico who said his daughter was the best thing in his life. Another, C, was from Toluca in Mexico; an aspiring boxer who lived outside of the city but came in to drive Ubers part-time. Chatting to them was a nice way to practice my Spanish, and to give people a little surprise — C literally said “I can’t believe you speak Spanish, I’m so surprised”. While they both agreed the flexibility of Uber was good, they said it was hard to live off it. What became clear to me was that Uber is very variable from city to city. While London Uber drivers seem generally positive, Austin didn’t have it at all because Uber left when the city tried to put in more stringent security checks (after some very nasty incidents). Very shady business.
Taxi cabs aside, we travelled to Austin which I absolute loved. Unlike Houston, there seemed to be much more of a bustle, more people walking around and it seemed a bit more cosmopolitan and young. We went to the state capital building, which was reallly impressive and had a Christmas concert on!
It did seem like a weird mix of the “traditional” ideas I associate with Texas (such as the religious aspects and the extreme state pride), with the incredible live music scene and, from what I’ve heard from other Americans at least, more open-minded views towards race and sexuality.
There was perhaps a greater Mexican influence here than anywhere else I’ve been (…not including Mexico). We visited the Mexic-Arte gallery, it’s small but I found it really interesting to see contemporary Chicano art. It was also free and had a Mexican nativity exhibition – What could get you more in the Christmas spirit than a baby Jesus surrounded by Cacti? Also, I also learned that Poinsettia are native to Mexico, though with a slightly different name in Nahautl, Cuitlaxochitl.
My time in Texas was topped off with a meal in Stubb’s Bar-BQ and an illegal consumption of IPA. Austin, I’m sure I’ll be back again.