I got my chance a few weeks ago to say Yes! to a genuine-spur-of-the-moment- opportunity-out of-nowhere-just-for-the-hell-of-it adventure when an old friend said to me, almost as a passing thought
“ You wanna go to Houston with me?”
Admittedly I was pretty desperate for a vacation, any vacation and it didn’t really cross my mind what it would mean to be in Texas at the end of August the hottest, most humid of the summer months. But the thrilling promise of doing something outside my usual mom-routine and the chance to hang out for a long weekend with Stef, one of my closest friends for the last twenty years, was enough to get me on-board. Sure, I said. Why not?
My job it turns out was simply to tag along with Stef while she worked for her family business. Her job was to hand-deliver flyers to Indian shops all over the greater Houston area. The premise of the trip was this: Stef works for her cousins who have a travel agency which specialize in cheap flights to India. Their clearly very successful advertising model is based on personal contact with Indian communities and ex-pats via food markets, chaat rooms, sari shops and the like. As I understand it they research and identify areas in the country which have large Indian populations and then send Stef into the field to make “first contact” by delivering the flyers to a predetermined list of businesses. So far she has delivered flyers to Indian neighborhoods all over Northern California from Sacramento to Santa Clara. These flyers are half page, bright yellow with low fares listed to Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai etc. from wherever the target market is. This time they read Cheap Fares from Houston!
It is interesting to experience a city for the first time solely from the passenger seat of a car. It’s all about visual impressions. I think much of America must look alike based on all the familiar brands and all the suburbia I saw, but there were definitely certain special twists that made it very unique and sometimes, foreign. Here’s what I saw on a highway through downtown Houston as we drove in from the airport: Outside of town there are decaying houses everywhere. Total condemned wrecks. I wonder are they crack houses? Back home they would definitely be crack houses. A block later I saw a tattoo shop, and next to it a piñata store. Out front was a giant piñata of a stripper with huge bulbous butt and boobs. I assume those are the parts one would “bust open” at a party.
The sky was darkening and everywhere I looked there were neon signs with at least one or two letters burned out, The Land of the Dying Neon. Flying up the freeway next to us, a motorcycle passed with no headlight and the riders without helmets. As it pulled next to us I saw the driver was wearing a leather hockey mask, all Texas Chainsaw Massacre and shit. His angry girl on the back of the ride turned her wind whipped head to scowl at us and then they sped ahead, her peach velour sweatpants complimenting her fat ass and black leather vest.
Welcome to Texas.
Steffie’s role during the weekend was as head honcho driver, GPS interpreter and of course Senior flyer-hander-outer. My task on the mission was to co-pilot, consult with the paper map when the GPS confused us, pass snacks over to her and to write notes on the list of drop spots to better identify them in case of future trips. For the first few hours on our first workday, Stef would climb back in the car after a drop and say something like “left on counter” or “friendly man” or “clean market next to a café”, which I would dutifully record on her printout. By day two, punchy, tired and road weary her descriptors became a little more focused and decidedly less upbeat. At one stop – a Halal meats grocer – my notes in the comment section read, and I quote, “that place stunk like someone poured Pinesol over a roasted goat”.
For all the driving we did during our time there, I was rarely outside of the tiny rental Fiat, so to be fair I can’t really say that I spent time IN Houston. Occasionally I would get out and go into the Indian stores with Stef for a bit of window shopping or to stretch my legs but mostly once we found our next location, she was in and out like a heartbeat. The job was really the getting to each place; the navigating a strange city to unknown shops, in most cases off the beaten path. I’m pretty sure we saw a side of Houston that most (non-Indian) visitors don’t usually see. We were driving through the neighborhoods where many different cultures and ethnicities lived and worked side by side with the uniting feature of being the “brown” folks.
We drove through a landscape of Sari shops, burka-clad shoppers, Quincinera dress outlets, Halal Meat shops, World Marts and taco trucks. The roadside was peppered with signage that transmitted the flavor of this particular place on earth: Not Your Mommas Church and green highway plaques such as Obey Warning Signs followed by the simple edict: State Law. Snowballs! read one sign, randomly. There were strip malls with True Jesus Church and a Slap Your Mama Chicken Shop. And I swear that I am not making this up – one huge Texan-sized sign in a empty parking which read: Boots and Coots.
Inside the car the scene was quite different. We were armed with maps and lists, cups of green tea, a David Sedaris book on cd, organic gardening magazines just in case ,and sticky gulab juman balls from our most recent chaat room stop. We had ended up renting the smallest little Fiat in Texas at the Hertz counter at the airport and somehow managed to shove all of our stuff into the tiny trunk. Over the weekend the car’s appeal grew on both of us. It was zippy and smart-looking and small enough inside that everything was easily within reach. The GPS unit that she travels with attached easily to the inside windshield and we were ready for business. The voice transmitter of the GPS was tinny and female as it directed us around the city. She barked commands at us like IN ONE QUARTER MILE TURN LEFT and then moments later TURN LEFT!, leaving us jittery and sometimes confused wondering, as we veered onto a side street, did she mean this left?? Several times we overshot the place we were supposed to turn and had to circle back, all the while the unit was commanding TURN RIGHT! THEN TURN RIGHT!
“She needs to learn the phrase ‘flip a bitch’ ” I said.
Stef told me the GPS voice was called Jessica and so this was how we referred to her. She became a defacto partner in our driving adventure and yes most of the time our scapegoat and punching bag. We even took to being mean to her at night in the hotel room saying snarky things like “Sorry Jessica but we are going swimming….Without you” or “Sorry sister,” as we went out to dine, “Find your own way to the buffet”. One morning after discussing why we couldn’t get Jessica to say actual street names with her directions, Stef looked into her settings and realized that Jessica’s voice was actually titled ‘Michelle’ and that there was, in fact a better option which would actually announce the street names.
From then on ‘Jill’ was our best friend and her robotic blurts of: IN ONE QUARTER MILE TURN LEFT…ON SPRING CYPRESS RD was music to our ears.
So those were the working conditions. But in between it all Stef and I managed to weave an inordinate amount of fun. It was such a treat to spend a long weekend in the company of a good friend. There was much laughter, and chai, and riotous color in the prints and the dazzle of the sari boutiques. There was Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls and the scent of cardamom and mango lassis. There was throwing change into the ridiculous amount of toll booths all along the Sam Houston Tollway, and that bathroom in the Food Mart in North Houston where we saw the sex vending machine and put our 75 cents in hoping for the black “studded” condom but instead getting that little box with the rubber tickler. The box, naturally, had printed on it: Made In India.
My other favorite part of being in Texas with a friend was finally being beneath that vast, much sung about, wide blue cowboy sky. It was like nothing else. The light from the South is so different and has a quality you don’t see out here on the western coast. All day long, fat white clouds stacked high upon each in the sky. And in the evening driving to our hotel for the night we were witness to the Sun cherry red and burning as it split the clouds with laser rays on it’s way to setting. It was dazzling and beautiful. And it looks like Stef will be under those enormous skies again very soon. The citizens of Houston are snapping up the cheap flights to India and she’ll be heading back for another round of flyering next month. This time she’ll already know the lay of land of course and where to get the best cup of chai and that one delicious Mediterrean café to eat at, but nevertheless – May she, and her next assistant, and GPS-Jill all be blessed with the Good Luck and Fine Adventures that we had.