Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Houston and Hays County – Texas USA

On the seventh of November 2011 Kate and I took the 9 hours and 18 minutes Sunset Limited Amtrak train from New Orleans to Houston Texas.  This proved an opportunity to sleep and recuperate after all of our adventures in New Orleans.  It also served to reassure us that the train is definitely our preferred way to travel if you have the time.  American trains are slow but there isn’t as much hassle as flying, the leg room is adequate as standard and the journeys tend to be smooth.  We arrived at around quarter past nine and my brother Callum and his wife Heather soon came to take us back to their house where we would be staying until late November.  We had been informed that there was a good chance that we would be bored as there wasn’t much to do but this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Peter the cat AKA Chairman Mow

Cuddling up with Felix AKA Commander Kitler

One of the first things we did during our stay was watch Heather perform in her excellent choir in honour of Veteran’s Day.  They were easily the best of the bunch and sang catchy and complex songs extremely well.  Most of the other items on the order of service were understandably dedicated to the service men and women of the past and present taking turns to pay homage to the various forces, each of whom had their own anthems.  I was surprised to hear that many of the anthems had been adapted from songs that I already knew with the lyrics changed and this even included the British National Anthem!  Veterans and family members of those currently serving the United States were asked to stand and be recognised for the duration of the song representing their service.  It was great to be able to see Heather performing and get to enjoy the fruits of her labours. 

Heather singing in the choir
 
Not only were we sharing the house with furry residents Peter (aka Peedee or Chairman Mow) and Felix (aka Commander Kitler) but we also got to look after Heather’s mum’s dog and cat, a German Sheppard called Heidi and a ginger tabby called Flea.  We had previously bought a small mouse toy that you could fill with catnip for the cats but they weren’t interested.  Fortunately the dog was interested and it was fun to see her carry a little mouse toy around the house and in the yard.  

Heidi the dog with her toy

Peter and Felix

There was plenty of medieval fun to be had on the 12th of November when we got dressed up (apart from Callum... booo!) and drove to the Texas Renaissance Festival.  The traffic as we got closer to the event was horrendous and served as a testament to its popularity.  The scale of the thing was astonishing.  It was easily as big as any UK theme park and there were plenty of amazing costumes, things to see and places to shop and eat.  My costume highlight was the centaur, at least I think it was a costume otherwise the guy had a full on horse growing out of his backside.   We indulged ourselves with turkey legs, empanadas and a deep fried onion whilst we pottered around the grounds soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the costumes.  

Myserious clothes from the future

What a feast!

There were some very cool events that took place at the festival including an owl show and a highland band with dancers.  None of us fancied the climbing wall but we watched others attempting the challenge wall where you win twenty dollars if you make it to the top.  Unfortunately most people didn’t get higher on the challenge wall than the height of the average llama.  Speaking of llamas, there was the most bizarre animal carousel where children could hop onto a live animal (including llamas) and get taken around in a circle.  Elsewhere there was even a pen where you could enjoy elephant and camel rides!  It really was great themed fun and a good day out.         

All aboard the animal carousel!

The owl show

Highland themed performance

On the 18th of November we visited NASA which was without a doubt one of the highlights of our visit to Houston.  The city describes itself as a space city and it would have been a shame to miss out on visiting the Space Centre whilst we were there.  Callum drove Kate and I to the main building which was quite interesting in itself, but the highlights were the off-site visit to the various NASA buildings via a tram and the icing on the cake was that as we had arrived on a Friday we were lucky enough to have a guest astronaut in to give a talk.  Not only had he been into space and done an EVA (appropriate abbreviation for spacewalk which stands for Extravehicular Activity) but he had also climbed Mount Everest on his second attempt, only failing the first time due to requiring an operation to remove a disc in his back.  He was truly an amazing guy and an inspiration.  Both Kate and I got to ask a question.  Kate asked him whether it was more of a challenge to go into space or climbing Mount Everest to which he responded the latter (albeit with more explanation!).  I asked him how much the training he did for space and in particular the spacewalk actually prepared him for experiencing the real thing.  There were a few differences especially when it came to the spacewalk, notably the inverse of how easy it was to stop and hard to start in a swimming pool when compared to attempting the same actions in space. 

Former astronaut Scott E. Parazynski

Display at the Space Center

Kate and Callum sporting their astronaut helmets

We took a scheduled tram tour of the various NASA buildings starting with a visit to the Mission Control Centre.  This is the centre which was responsible for supporting all the shuttle missions, the shuttle of course has since been decommissioned but they are still in contact with the International Space Station and a live feed from The ISS could be seen on the main screen at the front of the room.  We also visited the new Mission Control Centre with all the mod cons for future journeys into space.  There was a definite positive vibe in the atmosphere which suggested that although the shuttle program had been abandoned the show was by no means coming to an end. 

Brothers on the tram

Mission control center with a live feed from the MIR space station on right

The next building we visited housed a large training facility for the various NASA and International Space Station equipment.  This was a large facility with scale model parts of the actual equipment.  It was really great to see the size of the stuff that was being sent up on massive rockets and great examples of engineering.  

Traning facility for the International Space Station

The now legacy shuttle training facility

We didn’t stay there long and we were soon on the road again to the warehouse that contained the massive Saturn V rocket as part of the Apollo moon landing program.  You could walk all around it and it was almost close enough to touch thus allowing you to absorb the sheer scale and it really was massive.  The wall was lined with overviews of the various Apollo missions and quotes from the astronauts.  One of the most touching related to Apollo 1, the ill-fated first attempt at landing on the moon which ended in tragedy when a fire consumed the three astronauts during a training take off.  Gus Grisson, amongst the deceased made the following quote shortly before the tragedy,

“We’re in a risky business and we hope if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men”. 

The program was obviously not severely delayed and conspiracy theories aside you are probably aware that man has since been to the moon…  The visit to NASA is a must do if you are planning a trip to Houston and if possible try to visit on a Friday when you will have the best chance of an astronaut in attendance!
 
The Saturn V rocket of the Apollo Program

Saturn V rocket from the rear

Rockets from other Apollo missions
On the 20th of November Bob Kalmbach, a family friend of Heather’s along with his nephew Ross took us out on his boat for a fishing excursion in Galveston.  It was a bit of a drive to the harbour but it was great to chat with Bob who we hadn’t seen since Callum and Heather’s wedding over three years ago.  Bob backed the boat onto the slip and we jumped in with our expectations on catching fish realistically low but with that inevitable buzz that you get before you embark rod in hand.  We headed out to Bob’s secret spot and cut the engines before baiting our hooks with live shrimp.  It really didn’t take long before Bob got a bite.  He handed me the rod and allowed me to reel in the big redfish on the end of it.  Whilst I hadn’t truly caught it myself it was great to bring in a fish and although I didn’t know it at the time it was good practice for my own fish later!  

Ross taking the boat out

Bringing in the dinner

Ross brings a fish in

Kate's 26lb catch of Red Fish or Red Drum

Bob's fish wouldn't win any beauty contests but it makes good eatin'

The fish we caught was a redfish, also known as Red Drum.  I caught two of these for myself before we left the first spot, the biggest weighing in at around 24 pounds and by far the biggest fish I had caught in my life!  Bob and Kate won the day however, between them reeling in a 26 pound monster.  We happily gobbled down the keepers at the house of the Kalmbach’s family friend which was a great end to the day.  Not only is Bob a fantastic fisherman and host but he is also a great chef and the catch was delicious.          

At least this one will fit on a plate

Brothers enjoying the day

Sporting dangerous hairstyles from the wind

The next main event on the calendar was Thanksgiving at Heather’s ranch in Dripping Springs, all the way towards Austin.  Kate and I were extremely excited to be experiencing our first thanksgiving ever and had heard nothing but good things about the quality and quantity of food that would be on offer.  Beforehand we had the pleasure of looking after Kela and Russell’s pets, a dog called Dusty and cats Esme and Rosie. Their house was only a 15 minute cycle ride away along totally flat suburban streets and usually with great weather.  It was fun looking after the animals but soon it was time to say our goodbyes and head out to Dripping Springs for a pure slice of Americana.  The drive from Humble the night before Thanksgiving took about four hours which was actually pretty good as there wasn’t as much traffic as expected, we stopped off for a drive through Sonic Burger on the way!  

Little Esme

Dusty the dog

On the day of Thanksgiving many people made the journey to the Dripping Springs ranch to celebrate with Heather’s family.  Melissa had the turkey cooking all morning and was as calm as anybody you will ever see who was hosting so many people on such an important American occasion.  Once everyone had arrived Kate and I had the honour of filling our faces first so we grabbed our plates and helped ourselves to the food, but not before granny said a sweet Thanksgiving prayer as we all held hands.  There was a massive turkey to work on, some beautiful sprouts, excellent stuffing made by grandma, green beans, bread, cranberry sauce, a kind of quiche type dish and of course gravy to wash it all down.  There was some great company around the table we were sat at and there were plenty of laughs and lots of discussion about travel and all sorts of other topics. 

Everybody enjoying their Thanksgiving

A delicious plate of food

Uncle Charles carves the turkey
 
Charlie, Melissa, Kristof and Zac

Food aside it was a great coming together of friends and family.  There was plenty of music and socialising but it was all over too quickly as people had to make their long journeys back to wherever it was they needed to be to carry on with their lives.  We had the benefit of staying at the Ranch again that evening so we were able to see everybody off and have a relaxing evening together with Charlie and Kristof, Heather’s brothers. 

Heather and her dad, Ross

Granny and a happy Zac

Good times for family

Me and Melissa

The day after thanksgiving Kate and I went out in the car with Callum, Heather and Charlie to try our hand at Geocaching.  This is a treasure hunt game where you use your GPS as you may have in your car in order to try to locate hidden containers.  You can then either say “Yay, I found it!” and get on with finding the next one, or you can open the container and swap one of the items held within for one of your own.  It is pretty fun and a great means to explore an area on a sunny day.  Kate is the expert treasure hunter out of the two of us and after a healthy amount of time exploring in the dry Texan country she found the tin buried under some branches.  We signed the log book within and traded trinkets.  We then drove a little further until we came across our second Geocache of the day which was eventually found (again by Kate...) in the nook of an oak tree.  It was good fun and would be a great outdoor activity for families to take part in with younger children (although us big kids had fun too).  If you’re interested in reading more about Geocaching or want to see if there are any treasure troves in your area (and you may be surprised), they have a very good website where you can bang in your post code.

The treasure hunters with our Geocache

Charlie in his natural habitat

Kate, the real treasure hunter in the photo this time

Our next stop that day involved a little more driving in order to reach Pedernales State Park in the Texas Hill Country.  The river which looked more like a lake owing to the dry season was beautiful and there were plenty of people dotted around the vast area enjoying just lazing around like reptiles on the banks of the clear blue pools.  Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to swim but we could still enjoy the tranquillity of the place and had fun clambering over rocks in order to reach different areas.  Perhaps the ban on swimming is owing to the potential for flash flooding with little or no warning.  Thankfully for us there was no hint of anything untoward and we spent an hour or two chatting and hanging out and we all enjoyed watching Charlie boisterously climb up and around the rock face that stood in front of us.  It had been a great afternoon but it was now time to head back to Humble and Houston where we would have a couple more days before we needed to take our long flight back to London.

The view from above

Charlie looking like he is about to dive in!

Heather and Callum enjoying the sunshine and scenery

There was enough time for another game or two of Settlers of Katan and hanging out with Kela, Russell and Russell’s brother Tom before our flight on the 26th December.  Before we left, Bob and Dedra were kind enough to have us round for some Asian cuisine which was second to none.  Kate and I felt so welcome and we were sad to be going, not only because our journey was almost over but because of the hospitality and kindness we had received from Callum, Heather and their friends and family.  We will definitely miss them all a lot.

Dedra, me, Kate, Kela, Russell and Bob

Bob and Kela

Kela and Russell

Tom dropped us off at George Bush Intercontinental airport Houston on Monday the 26th of December for our flight back to Heathrow, three hundred and ninety eight days after we left that same airport to fly to Bangkok in November 2011.  We were looking forward to spending some time in London with Kate’s brother’s family before Kate made her way back to Bristol for Christmas and I took my flight back to Jersey.

3 comments:

  1. Great Post! I'm in the midst of looking at family resorts in Texas and my kids mentioned a lot of the things you have pictured like the NASA buildings, it looks like you had a great time!

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