Houston, we have a problem...

Trip Start Sep 01, 2008
Trip End Nov 19, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Sunday, September 28, 2008

We have done it again. It hasn't been that long since we walked out of the hotel in Memphis in a huff because the builders were driving us crazy and we seem, once again, to be sharing a hotel with workmen. This time though, we will not be making any complaints. In fact, Laura nearly kissed the receptionist when he told us that he had a room for us. You see, since we are on holiday, we both shut down our brains, so neither of us predicted the problem that would be awaiting us in Houston...

The trouble started as we left New Orleans on Laura's birthday, heading west to the wetlands in the hopes of joining a tour to hunt for alligators and other creatures of the swamp. First we managed to spend a good hour just trying to find the road that we wanted out of the city. Then, this road proved to be slightly less scenic than we had hoped - in fact it was, similarly to many other roads in this area, lined with more chemical plants and oil refineries. Never mind, we knew where we were heading: the Atchafalaya basin where a number of different swamp tour operators, recommended in our guidebook, were located. When we finally arrived, having got a little more lost on the way - part of the charm of a road trip really - we thought we were cleverly just in time for the 15.00 tour that we had seen listed on the website of the tour operators website. The boathouse and café, however, were worryingly quiet and when we asked about the afternoon's tour, we were told that they would not be going out today - not even the more pricey private airboat tour would operate this afternoon. They could put our names down for the 10.00 tour the next morning, but were very hesitant about whether it would go ahead, even though it was a Saturday. It appears that we had showed up, very unexpectedly, well outside their tourist season.

Suppressing our disappointment, we decided to go up the road a little way to Lafayette where we could at least enjoy the other half of Laura's birthday plans: a nice, long trip to the cinema. We had already found the address of a cinema at a big, out-of-town mall online and headed straight there - we decided to check the film times before finding nearby lodging. Again, we were met with disaster. The cinema had gone out of business and, according to one of the mall's security guards, was currently being torn down! In order to regroup and to avoid the day being a complete loss, we decided to eat Laura's birthday cake (a tasty chocolate one bought earlier that day from Walmart) in the parking lot and think about what to do next. The chocolate provided a sudden burst of inspiration: forget the swamps, forget Lafayette, forget Louisianna - let's just head straight on to Houston. It was our next stop anyway and we could be there by nightfall, still find a cinema (hoorah) and go to the Space Center in a second attempt at a special birthday activity the next morning.

3 hours later, just as the sun was setting, we came to Houston's outer ring-road. The traffic got heavier, the roads wider and everywhere was concrete. The stars were coming out by the time we had navigated our way to the South-Eastern corner of the city where we hoped to check into a motel/hotel near to the space center. It was gone 8pm but the traffic showed no sign of letting up. But that didn't matter, because we had found a road with the whole selection of motel and hotel chains on it, so we were convinced that our long journey was nearly over. We pulled into the first one but there was a hand-written note on the door that said 'no more vacancies'. Around the corner, we tried another, but this motel seemed to be closed entirely. Slowly, it was dawning on us that hurricane Ike which swept through the city 2 weeks ago may be messing with our plans. We tried a third hotel and the security guard on watch told us that they were also full. From the cars, vans and pick-up trucks in the parking lot it was clear that rennovation crews were using the motels as a base while working to repair the damage left by the hurricane on this side of the city. The security guard told us that we would be unlikely to find a room anywhere in Houston!

Joking that we may have to prepare ourselves for a night in our car or for the drive on to San Antonio to find a place to stay, we decided that we should have a break and a proper meal and a new re-think. We selected, for irony's sake as much as anything else, TGI Friday's (it was Friday, but we were not much in the god-thanking mood) and collapsed into a booth. We were tired and hungry, but mainly just burning with embarassment at our own stupidity. On the basis of the reports of hurricane Ike's damage, we were clever enough to scrap our plans to stay in scenic, coastal Galveston, since this had taken the brunt of the storm and most of it had been completely levelled. And we had checked to see if the Space Center had re-opened. But that was where the thinking had stopped. We never considered that these newly-homeless people might need to temporarily stay in nearby hotels and motels or that the reconstruction crews would need somewhere to sleep. And here we were, two mindless tourists from Europe, hoping to find a room that would give us convenient access to the Space Center. We laughed and laughed and laughed at our own ignorance; and as we ate, we gathered strength for the task of finding somewhere to stay. We headed off around the massive ring road (usually a toll road, but tolls were still suspended until the following day - something which could also have been a clue, had we been looking, as to the impact of Ike). When we got to the opposite side of the city, we saw another long line of hotels and motels beside the road and thought we would give it a try. The first motel we walked up to was closed, quite possibly because most of its windows had been blown out! Then we came to the trusty old Holiday Inn. We walked inside and, with little hope of a positive response, told the receptionist that we were desperately searching for the room. "Smoking or non-smoking, one or two beds" he replied. We were in luck! We dragged our suitcases up to the room. It was on the 3rd floor, where one side of the corridor the rooms were being repaired and the windows put back in and on the other side, the rooms were still in use. Hoorah!

And so ended Laura's official birthday - it was almost 11.00pm and we had been on the road since 9.30am. Exhausted, we crept into bed, laughed out loud one more time for good measure, and fell asleep.

The next morning we made another attempt at doing something special for Laura's birthday: we headed for the Space Center. We didn't even complain that it was an hour drive, back the way we had come the night before - we were just glad that we hadn't had to go any further to find a hotel. And it was all well worth it. The Space Center was fabulous, particularly the tram tour "behind the scenes" at NASA, where you get to see the historic mission control room from which they guided the moon landings and part of the enormous training facility for astronauts going up to the International Space Station. We spent a long and happy day wandering around the exhibits, watching the films and live presentations and learning about NASA's plans for the future: back to the moon by 2020 to build a permanent base there, then on to Mars by 2030. We'll see...

And once we had had our fill of space, we drove to the cinema we had spotted the night before and relaxed into the comfy chairs in the dark (and freezing!) room, to enjoy "Ghost Town". Hilarious and recommendable by the way. Laura's birthday, part 2, a rousing success!
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