Houston is very flat and on a clear day you can see so far. It is also built on a swamp, according to the mattress sales guy who is a native Houstonian. For this reason, according to my source, the roads are elevated.
Rob had told me how incredible and huge the road system was, but I thought he was just exaggerating. When we drove from the airport that first night, I just couldn’t believe it.
The motorways/tollways/freeways weave around each other like cooked spaghetti. These roads are 5 or 6 lanes each way with exits and entrances coming on and off every half mile or so. I was on a section of the Sam Huston tollway last week and it was like getting to the top of a roller coaster. It was so high. I could see for miles and I got that funny feeling in my stomach like just before the roller-coaster heads down. A bit scary when you’re the one driving. People are very polite (so far) about letting you move between lanes, but forget the 3 car spaces. I know that this is the same in Sydney, but the sheer volume of traffic and the speed makes it seem really crowded and scary.
In truth I have only driven on the wrong side of the road twice. The first time was the very first morning I was in Houston and Rob insisted I drive. Luckily it was Sunday morning and there was virtually no one on the road. That was part of the problem- when there are other cars its obvious where you should be… There was a bit of yelling and tears but we continued on. Rob is right, I have to drive here so its have a go or go home.
Car parks take particular attention as the lanes are not so defined but at least everyone is going slowly. The second error was really weird and quite recently. I pulled onto a road from a service station and the car ahead of me went left and I was going right but for some reason (not concentrating) I pulled onto the opposite side of the road. I realized immediately but there was that moment of total confusion. A car came around the corner to see me on the wrong side. He was going slowly thank heavens. I gave him a wave as I pulled onto the right side then pulled over to gather myself. It still gives me chills when I think about it.
I just try to remind myself every time I get in the car that the driver sits in the middle of the road. the problem is that there are so many one way roads. Fortunately you are rarely on a road by yourself in Houston.
If you miss your exit there is usually an alternative one at the next exit. I love WAYZ. I could not have left the hotel for the last few weeks without it. Not only does it show me the best way to get anywhere but it changes as the traffic conditions change. This is really important because the traffic is unbelievable. There is not much public transport; there seems to be a metro in the downtown area and a few buses, so everyone drives. And fast. The speed limit on the tollways and freeways is between 60 and 65 mph and 45mph on the side link roads. However,the speed limits seem to be voluntary. I mentioned this to the hairdresser on Friday and she laughed at me. If I drive at the limit, which seems very fast in heavy traffic, I am often one of the slowest cars. Speeding drivers weave in and out of lanes at much more than 70mph. Yesterday when I was stuck in slow traffic, a motorbike sped past weaving through the traffic at a ridiculous speed. I fully expected to see him plastered to the back of a truck around the corner.
The news has reports of road fatalities every morning. There was an electric sign on the freeway yesterday that declared the state road toll for 2018 was more than 3500 (I think it said 3547). It was about 13.1 per 100,000 population in 2017. Houston has the highest number of fatalities per head of any city in the US. Now, it is one of the biggest cities in the US and the population of Texas is about 28 million but compare those statistics to Australia (population around 25 million) where the 2018 statistics for deaths per 100,000 population is 4.6. According to Nathalie, our relocation agent, Texas allows texting and holding your phone while driving. Seatbelts are mandatory, just like in Australia but again it does not seem to be something that people do. For the last few days, I have noticed the car fatalities, often involve unrestrained children. I vote for the nanny state on this 😊
We are moving into our new place next week and I am excited to say that Rob will be back for the move! As I said in my last blog, I have been keeping busy organizing the utilities and my social security number. The last utility to do was the water utility which had to be done in person. The office is way out in the north west of Houston about 40 minutes’ drive. The office is just in a workshop aluminum (spell check changed this from aluminium) shed. Very inauspicious. Anyway, in I go, there are two windows, one for paying and one for organizing a new service. The lady was very friendly and told me that her daughter was in Sydney for the new year. So nice, people want to chat when they know I’m from Australia. Pay the deposit and charges in cash (or bank cheque) and there you go. Drive home. Seems so inefficient. I’m hoping when I get into it there are online options that I just haven’t found yet.
I have found something at Starbucks that works for me: spicy cinnamon tea. Its really yummy and I don’t feel at all self-conscious about not ordering a coffee. I have become used to having filtered coffee in the morning, but I have not quite got it right in restaurants yet. Coffee doesn’t come with milk unless you ask. The locals are really quite generous. I went into a breakfast restaurant last week while waiting for the bank to open and just ordered a coffee (with milk) when it came to paying, I was waved away because “you don’t need to pay for just having a coffee” (at that place anyway). I would really like a proper flat white but I’m too chicken to try. I have been looking at buying a coffee machine like ours at home. It’s on the list- we have to replace all our appliances because the voltage here is different to Australia.
The generosity of locals was also evident yesterday when I drove into the museum area to check it out before Ben and Maddy arrive next week. I went to the buffalo soldier’s museum, which documents the history of the African American soldiers since the civil war. I reached into my bag for the $5 to pay the entrance fee and discovered I had come without my purse. The lovely lady at the desk said, you can come in (there was no one else there) you don’t want to drive all the way home for $5. I will certainly be back with the kids next week.
The time finally arrived when I had to get my hair done again. For me this was a bit scary because I have been going to my friend Nic for at least ten years. I thought I would go big first and try to work it out from there, so I booked into a salon in the Memorial City Shopping Centre (one of my favorites). The first difficulty was explaining to the receptionist over the phone what I needed. Did I want a color or highlights? I said no highlights I needed my roots done. I needed to have the same color to cover the grey roots that were showing- that explanation meant that she booked me in for highlights(?); And a cut- just a trim of my fringe. Anyway, so I turn up and its huge. Two rooms with an adjoining corridor with the barber’s chairs. Do I want a coffee or water (you get water everywhere; So much for plastic awareness)? Water. Have a seat in the chemical section (!). My colorist Pricilla comes over and I explain what I think I actually want. She’s all over it and we are underway. It was a massive salon; maybe 30 hairdryer hoody thingies (sorry not very good with this type of thing). From there I move to the getting your hair washed area and a new person who just specialized in washing your hair. It was so good I nearly went to sleep. The best part was when she put a nice hot towel on my head, so soothing, like a massage. Next stop the cutting area. Again, this was enormous with lots of people moving about. Lauren, the cutter was expecting to cut my hair, as in really cut it. I put that aside for another day and just got my fringe trimmed and lots of sales pitch on products to keep my hair smooth and curly and shiny and…… In the end it did not cost much more than I pay at home + tip. The tipping was scary, but I just screwed up the courage to ask what the protocol is and was given a fairly sensible answer. You must pay the tip to the actual person in cash, so I added it to my bill and was given the cash which I then took back to each of the people I had been served by. It’s complicated.
I’m still loving the experience, but I think this coming week might bring the realization that we are not just on holidays; we are moving into a house, with our gear and school goes back at home.
Thinking of you all as you get back into routine.