Houston, we have a problem

Trip Start Oct 05, 2005
Trip End Apr 06, 2006

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

My going to Houston was more than a little lastminute.com, so when I called Fran to tell her I was coming to stay in two days' time I was not surprised to hear she was somewhat busy and my unplanned visit might be a smidge inconvenient. But she was very sweet and said she was excited to see me and told me that if she couldn't pick me up from the airport, Charlie, her son, would. I asked her what Charlie looked like, so that I would recognise him at the gate. "Good-looking, big brown eyes like mine, and fit," she said. "He's 24". Needless to say he was not hard to spot.

So we drive, in his Mustang, through the pouring rain to the hostel where I am supposed to be staying. I told the owner I'd be back later once we'd had something to eat, but as Charlie and I were leaving, a drunk middle-aged man slunk down the stairs, watery-eyed, and asked us where we were from. The answer was immaterial, as he proceeded to lead us outside and tell us his life story, which consisted largely of a bear and some guy called Pete. I could sense Charlie was petrified.

After dinner, Charlie drove me back to the hostel, but the offer of a sofa at his was infinitely more appealing than a dorm bed with an alcoholic, so I stayed three nights, busying myself visiting the museums and galleries around Houston, until Fran could come and get me.

I hadn't seen Fran for eight years, and I don't think either of us could believe it had been so long. We had met on a boat in Fiji, going to two separate islands, her on a Christian mission to deliver spectacles to local children, me on a party-hard backpacking trip. It was a scorching day so a scramble net had been hung down the side of the boat for people to cool off in and I was the only person stupid enough to jump into it. The force of the water immediately began pushing me out of the net, so that I had to hang on for dear life just to stay alive, and the spray was having a fireman's hose-effect on my bikini, which was by now somewhere up near my ear. As I lay there, I looked up to see two decks of passengers staring at me aghast, Fran clicking away with my camera, just in case I would like a reminder for the family album. I then had to spend four days and five nights with the same people on an island small enough to circumnavigate in ten minutes, and became known as the poor naked girl in the net, lest I be forgotten. Fran and I wrote to each other ever since.

We drove to her home, which is in a small town called Crockett (of the Davy variety), between Houston and Dallas. There are 150 churches in the vicinity, and the county is classed as "partially wet", which means the sale of alcohol is restricted. Some counties are completely dry, and you can't get alcohol for love nor money. Around the house were pictures of Fran and her husband with George Bush.

It was such a treat to be at Fran's and enjoy some home comforts. When you've been on the road for a while, it's the little things that you come to appreciate. She did all my laundry, cooked wonderful organic, homemade food (pecan pie, waffles, cornbread... grits) and let me make neverending cups of tea. I also had a huge room to myself and slept in the most comfortable bed ever. She made me feel so welcome and cared for.

I spent the few days I was there relaxing, catching up with Fran, and tagging along on grocery trips, church lunches and neighbourly visits. I joined them at the Sunday service, where a man in the choir sang a long, off-key solo in a thick Texan accent. I was also able to ride their friend, Billy Jo's horse, a young, barely broken-in thing, on a saddle won in a rodeo.

My vegetarianism went down like a lead balloon in a state where fried meat is the staple diet, and when I got chatting to a lady in a shop and told her I was travelling, where I'd been and where I was going, she asked me if I was a spy. She was being perfectly serious. The only evening entertainment was the cinema, which I went to once with Fran and again with Bubba's wife Patty to see Munich. Behind me sat a six-year-old girl, who spent the whole time eating crisps and kicking my chair.

My worst nightmare happened on the Sunday morning before church while I was alone in the house. Fran had neglected to tell me just how precarious the plumbing was, and for what seemed like an eternity I had to watch, horrified, as gallons of water gushed over the side of the toilet, flooding the bathroom and pouring through the ceiling into two of the rooms below. I saw my life flash before me. I honestly thought I had broken their house. I immediately went into survival mode, grabbing towels, paper, anything, frantically mopping up and drying out until the crisis was virtually undetectable to the naked eye. I didn't say anything in church, nor did I let on at Sunday lunch in the golf club, and as we drove up the road I peeked through my fingers to make sure the house was still standing. After I told Fran the whole saga, she hugged me and laughed and told me the same thing had happened to the TV repair man the other day. I dread to think what embarrassing thing I will do the next time I see her.
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