Archives For roadtrips

Houston is a city with a bad rap. When I mention we own a funky loft in Downtown I am met with comments like, “How can you stand it?” “Full of concrete.” “Dangerous. Full of gun-toting Texans.” For those in the actual know, Houston is a diverse, liberal city with incredible arts and culture, an amazing choice of excellent restaurants serving anything from Brazilian to Thai cuisine, and all manner of dishes in between. Parks brimming with well-tended spaces and water features, bayous that encourage wildlife – including the odd ‘gator, and bike trails galore dot the landscape. It is a city that has found its feet and has stopped the wanton demolition of buildings that might be more than 30 years old. As such Downtown is a wonderful conglomeration of old and new – honouring the past yet not afraid of the future. And whenever I return from any absence my heart lifts. 

It was my sole intent to show my travelling companions the best of Houston but first the fridge needed stocking. My chosen shopping spot was awash in flowers and chocolate dipped strawberries in preparation for Mother’s Day and we delighted in the colourful array. Suitably provisioned we headed home for a late lunch and general breath catching after a hectic week. It was nice to chill.

Catalina Coffee is the place in which much of my first book, Expat Life Slice by Slice, was written. It has been our favoured haunt since it opened, and I have spent many hours there chatting, reading or writing. It was where my second book, Fireburn, was launched. It is, in short, a place in which happy memories have been made and so it seemed only right to start our day there. And it serves the best coffee in town.

Houston is big but the core, the heart of Houston, is not and in order to give my guests their bearings we went for a drive along Buffalo Bayou, through River Oaks, and back through Memorial Park. Houston is also a shopping mecca and so we agreed Saturday would be our day to browse, and I had a party to prepare for. I introduced Emy and Laurie to Arnie’s – the store to beat all stores for anything festive. Need accoutrements for a Texans party, go to Arnie’s. Need a lei, go to Arnie’s. Having a bar mitzvah, go to Arnie’s. Need something risqué for a bachelorette party, try Arnie’s. 

Mother’s Day brunch was spent at Boomtown Coffee though as we wandered along Main Street I thought we were heading to the Honeymoon Café – a lot can change in a few months. I can’t begin to remember all the iterations the space has been called since I’ve lived Downtown. That space also holds many memories – my husband had a job interview there when it was the St Pete’s Dancing Marlin! Brunch was fun – a Mother’s Day treat for Laurie and I, courtesy of Emy!

There is an area of Houston that is particularly dear to me, so it was a must-see. The University Museum at Texas Southern, in the Third Ward, has been somewhere I have spent more time than most places over the last fifteen years or so. A place where I got more than I gave. A place that taught me to understand and value African American art, from the recognised greats of John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White and Kermit Oliver to up-and-coming greats like Leamon Green, Kingsley Onyeiwu and Prinston Nnanna. The Museum is in the Fairchild Building and was converted from the original gymnasium and so has high ceilings, the original floor and light streaming in to form an airy, serene art space – and on the walls was the Graduating Seniors Exhibition, the latest artistic talent to emerge from TSU.

Monday could have been a mess due to the guide’s forgetfulness – i.e. all Houston museums are closed on Mondays and so our long-awaited entry to the Van Gogh Exhibition at the MFAH was a non-starter, though Emy and Laurie did manage to get to see it later in the week, and me a few days later still. Instead we lunched at the Hotel Za Za, that chi-chiest of places on the edge of Herman Park. Next stop the Rothko Chapel. Also closed, this time due to renovations. My role as tour guide was looking nebulous but a drive around Rice University saved the day. We also said goodbye to Bruiser.

Then it was Tuesday. The day around which the entire epic escapade had been based. The Gemini Lunch – an event started over ten years ago – for a group of friends of the dual personality persuasion plus, because it was my party, a few non-Gemini friends! And what was spectacular was that in 2018 that wonderful group of women travelled to St Croix to celebrate my 60th birthday with me there, and so knew Emy and Laurie. It was not a quiet affair. Starting at noon, it ended at 7:30.

Wednesday was the official end of our wonderful road trip as Laurie left to return to Winter Park, the start of our odyssey. We remembered to wear our NOLA for beads for the final photo! Emy though still had a few days left in H-town and so we wandered the elegant halls of The Menil Museum, and went to the Alley Theatre and saw the brilliant Constellations by British playwright, Nick Payne.

Thursday saw the book signing of my third book, Transfer, at the delightful River Oaks Bookstore – thank you for coming out to play, Houston – followed by dinner at The Blue Nile – an Ethiopian restaurant.

Serendipity is a fine thing and two of my favourite people happen to be Wellesley alumni, and here they were both in Houston. Dr Alvia Wardlaw, Director of the University Museum meet Emy Thomas, journalist, author and artist – a lovely evening spent in the company of two remarkable women.

And then it was over – a fabulous road trip to always remember – Emy’s Epic Escapade!

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We knew rain was in our forecast but it held off long enough for us to tour the Whitney Plantation, the only museum in Louisiana to showcase plantation life from the enslaved perspective. We were ably lead by Ali whose ancestors had worked the fields of the plantation when it was owned by a German immigrant family. Ambroise Heidel, after humble beginnings, purchased the land in 1752 on which he planted indigo, that most precious of dyes which symbolised wealth for many, from the Tuaregs of the Sahara to the nobility of the Elizabethan era. But indigo production requires great acreage and so when Jean Jacques Haydel (notice the name change), son of Ambroise, took over the plantation in the early 1800s he transitioned to sugar. The plantation stayed in the family until after the Civil War when it was bought by Bradish Johnson of New York. It was then it became known as the Whitney Plantation – named for his grandson, Harry Whitney.

But neither indigo nor sugar, whose actual production is remarkably similar, could be grown, harvested and fermented without a large workforce. And that was provided by the enslaved. It is always the casual cruelty that affects me most when I read about, or visit museums, dedicated to slavery. The indifference. Even a seemingly initial kindness turns into a self-serving and uncharitable disregard. A fact highlighted by the soulful statue of a young slave girl standing in Marie Azélie Haydel’s bedroom. Taken in as an infant, dressed in the finest clothes, taught her letters and numbers, she was toyed with until age ten – then the fine life was taken away and she became what she had in essence always been – a slave. Abuse of the most callous kind.

And it is that which the Whitney Plantation brings to life. Through recorded stories of those who remembered being enslaved as children. Stories gathered in the 1930s and 40s by a team led by folklorist John Lomax of the Federal Writers’ Project, and under the auspices of President Roosevelt. 

The Whitney Plantation is now owned by John Cummings, a retired trial lawyer from New York who in his own words is “a rich white man”. The estate bought as an investment has instead become his life’s passion – a legacy demanding attention. The Children of Whitney, statues of enslaved children dot the property and are the work of Woodrow Nash, a sculptor from Ohio. The figures are made more haunting by eyeless sockets and bowed heads. It is hard not to be imbued with shame. Then the Field of Angels. Black granite slabs naming the 2,200 slave children who died in Louisiana before their third birthday. Thirty-nine of them on the Whitney Plantation between 1823 an 1863. There is statue in their midst, a bronze sculpted by Rod Moorhead, of a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven. It was impossible not to cry.

By the time we got to the plantation house I couldn’t have cared less about the murals and frescos painted by Italian artist Dominici Canova and commissioned by Marie Azélie Haydel, the widow whose plantation by 1860 was producing up to 407,000 pounds of sugar in one grinding season. Produced on the backs of those bartered through the Domestic Slave Trade.

As we drove through the Whitney Plantation gates the heavens opened and I, that most pragmatic of women, felt they could well be the tears of angels.

We were subdued and, until our mobiles started bleeping warnings of flash floods, only cursory words were spoken. But as rain lashed the windscreen and Laurie’s grip on the steering wheel changed from light to tight a change in mood was called for. And so we sang. Or rather we started numerous songs only to tail off into tum-de-dums as lyrics failed us.  

Now I’ve never been to the Isle of Capri in Italy, but I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like the Isle of Capri at Lake Charles, our next rest stop. Granted the gloom of a furious storm did nothing to elevate the scenery, but the hoped for jollity of a casino hotel was equally lacking. Instead droopy-eyed punters sat at dining tables eating forgettable meals. A little levity was found when our waitress attempted to remove a plate whilst Emy was in the act of eating, fork en route to mouth. My words were probably harsh and further conversation with our server was conducted through Laurie, whose charm soothed ruffled feathers.

Morning came to find Laurie looking flummoxed. Guilty.

“I think I must have hit something. That’s a fire alarm,” she said, throwing on clothes and disappearing along the corridor. She didn’t return.

Why, I wondered, as Emy and I followed suit do women always assume we are at fault?

We found Laurie outside in the carpark, not allowed reentry. We mingled with fellow guests – tousled hair, bleary eyes and lack of clothing added to the drizzling drama. I had never realised camis enclosing bosoms could house so many knick knacks – cell phones, cigarettes, lighters, wallets. There appeared to be quite a lot of teeth missing from various mouths.

Words jumbled around us. 

“Screaming all night long. Doors banging.”

“Smoke everywhere on the 5th floor.”

“A naked lady – Asian – running up and down the corridor.”

We listened as sirens approached. Slinging my computer case into Bruiser I saw, at the side of the hotel, two fire engines, an ambulance and a police car. A woman covered in a sheet appeared to be receiving oxygen.

“I’m going in for our stuff,” I said, expecting to be stopped by someone in authority. Not smelling anything untoward I went to our room on the ground floor. It was not pretty packing. As I pulled three cases down the corridor people were entering the lobby, only to be shunted out again. Then in again. It was fortunately not a serious fiasco.

Free breakfast, issued for our inconvenience, turned out only to be available from 11am. At 8am and in dire need of coffee we braved the cafeteria. Breakfast was good, or maybe adrenaline had sharpened our appetite.

None of this intrepid trio are gamblers but a quick swing through the casino was a must. Croupiers – the women heavily made up and no longer in the first, second or third flush of youth, and pasty men, paunches straining uniform shirts – spun wheels, flipped cards, or gathered dice in automated boredom. Smoke lingered overhead like a shroud. 

The pokies – one armed bandits – flashed their gaudy lights as bills were fed into their greedy mouths and the roll of the machine jolted to a stop and delivered no rewards. Men and women, cigarettes stuck to lips or dripping ash to the floor watched in blind belief that today would be the day. 

We each played. Novices that we are, we didn’t realize we were in the high stakes area until I lost $10 on two pulls. Laurie and Emy sensibly moved to the amateurs side of the hall and lost $5 each on five pulls. A mug’s game.

Lake Charles was still drizzling and so with little regret we left and Bruiser took us on our final drive to Houston where …..

Montgomery was a welcome sight after a long day of driving and having found our accommodation with only the most minor of detours, due entirely to the driver not following navigational instruction, it was good to stretch our legs. As sometimes happens we found, tucked behind an unprepossessing strip mall, The Cork and Cleaver – an eatery which proved a pleasant culinary surprise not far from our hotel.

The sole purpose of heading north was to visit The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration www.eji.org  Opened just over a year ago, the museum uses technology to chillingly dramatize “the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America.” 

Our timed entry to the Museum ensured an early start and at 9:30 we were at the doors of what was once a warehouse for the enslaved, a mere block from what had been one of the biggest human auction sites in the country. It stood adjacent to the docks and railroad – convenient for the trafficking of people. Exploring “the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence” made for uncomfortable viewing. And gave a stark confirmation that racial tensions are still far too high in America, with detention levels of African Americans proportionally higher than for any other race. 

Jefferson’s ban in 1808 on importing people as chattels from Africa did not end slavery, many still being smuggled in through Spanish Florida, but rather also lead to the lucrative Domestic Slave Trade – that of selling men, women and children from the northern to the southern states. Montgomery, one time home to the fertile Black Belt, was where plantations owners garnered huge enslaved populations to work the rich soil and to pick cotton – its production increased by the invention of the cotton gin. By 1860, Alabama was one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.

We spent a humbling few hours absorbing just some of the horrors faced not only by the enslaved, but by the humiliation of segregation. One wall was covered with signs common to the Jim Crow years – No Niggers, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans Allowed – No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs – were two that I found particularly offensive. 

We blinked as we emerged from the dimmed lights of the museum to the brilliance of the day, sun bouncing off cars in a blistering haze. It made the juxtaposition of what we had seen and what we were about to see even more stark. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a few short blocks from the museum, is built on the crest of a hill overlooking the city. It is dedicated to the legacy of those enslaved, those terrorized by the then ever-present threat of death, those whose dignity was stripped away by segregation. Surrounded by lawns, the memorial has 800 suspended steel columns etched with many names and many ‘unknowns’ denoting the county and state in which the offense took place. Over 4,400 African Americans, including children, over a period of 73 years and only ending in 1950, were murdered – hung, burnt, shot, drowned or beaten – by white mobs. I expected it too to be a chilling place but, like war cemeteries, there was a tranquillity. As if naming names acknowledged the atrocity and allowed the souls of those murdered to be finally being honoured.

We three intrepid travellers left Montgomery glad we had visited. Glad to have faced that which is often left unsaid, and believing every American man, woman and child should at some stage in their life visit both the museum and the memorial because it paves the way for discussions many of us don’t have, and many of us don’t want to have. 

Our drive out of the city was quiet as we processed all we had seen. There is, I know, much about my British heritage of which to be ashamed but the legacy of legalised segregation in Britain is not included in the list. I left Montgomery with a profound gratitude that I was not brought up in America – that Africa and Asia gave me my early education in schools filled with people of all colours, ethnicities and religions.

We picked up Interstate 65 and headed south to Mobile. The Malaga Inn, originally built in about 1862 as twin townhouses by two brothers-in-law for their wives, was a peaceful sanctuary after the turmoil of the morning. Like many old homes, the Malaga Inn, also has secrets, along with tunnels possibly used as a hiding place by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The homes remained in the Goldsmiths and Frohlichstein families for many years but from the early 1900s filtered through various owners until the mid 1960’s when the current owner’s family bought and renovated both properties. Two stories were added to the coach house with bedrooms overlooking a courtyard between the two original properties. Profuse with the lingering scent of jasmine and gardenias, pots of colourful geraniums nestle beneath pansies and petunias cascading from baskets hanging from flickering gas lights, the courtyard was a haven of serenity in which to discuss, over a bottle of wine, the questions provoked by the day’s activities.

The morning saw us finishing our coffee, again in the courtyard, before wandering along the banks of the Mobile River where students posed for graduation photographs amidst the flowers and statuary in the park, and to the accompaniment of toots from tugs. Emy also found a knee on which to perch. That of Ervin S Cooper, founder of one of the largest stevedoring companies in the country, and operating in 23 ports.

Before leaving, we learnt that Mobile and not our next destination, New Orleans, is considered the home of Mardi Gras in America. Then taking the road less travelled we meandered along Highway 90, through Pascagoula and Biloxi, marvelling at the Antebellum grandeur lining the shoreline until we found ourselves on Elysian Fields where…..

Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!