As I drove from NYC to DC, with a stop in Philadelphia, I was getting text messages from J2, who was struggling with just about every aspect of returning his rental car to the depot and making his way to our rendezvous point at the Tysons Corner mall. First he could not find the car rental return spot, so he texted me. I had never been to the place where he collected the car, so I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to know where to return it, but I was the one with data on my smartphone so I tried to find out for him (while driving at highway speed on I-95, of course). I eventually realised that I was better off stopping, so I pulled over and tried to phone Alamo Rent-a-Car, but that was a surefire way to give myself a stroke, since the person I was speaking to was probably the single stupidest person in the entire organisation (e.g., he could not quite grasp the fact that Washington DC is not the same thing as Seattle, Washington). So I gave up on the toll-free number and instead phoned the depot itself, though that was also fruitless, since the only information they could provide was pre-recorded (no option to speak to a person was proffered) and that did not include directions to the car-return lot. So I advised J2 to ask a cop. I later found out that he had circled Union Station countless times in a vain hunt for the entry to the parking structure, which it turns out had its primary ramp under construction and a small sign directed people to use another entrance. There was no sign about rental cars, so he only found it by accident (and he was told that everyone who returned a car that day made the same complaint about how hard it was to find them).
Then, with the car disposed of, he could not get cash from the ATM card that I had set up for him to use. He kept asking for one bit of info after another, from our ZIP code in NZ, to the PIN that might be on the card, to my blood type (well, maybe not the blood type), but nothing would lead the machine to give him any cash. In the end, he used my Amex card to buy himself a metro ticket (and when we met up and I asked to try the ATM card, it turns out he brought the wrong one with him–this one had expired in 2014).
Anyway, I eventually found him and we spent the next several days in the DC area staying with friends (thanks, Connie & Ken, and Abdo & Barbara, for your hospitality!) and visiting with others. One of the most anticipated evenings was our annual get-together with the “chowhounds”, friends of mine who used to get together for meals at one exotic restaurant or another when I was living in DC. For this outing they chose something truly unusual, a Yemeni restaurant. Having never had Yemeni food, I had no idea what to expect, but it was listed as one of the area’s best “cheap eats” so it seemed pretty promising, even if Abdo, who has lived in the Middle East, advised that Yemeni food was not among those with a particular following in that part of the world. Turns out there’s a reason for that–the food was pretty bad, and one dish in particular was so bad that I could not bring myself to eat what I had taken of it. Still, it was a fun evening, and I can now skip any future invitations to dine in a Yemeni restaurant with a clear conscience.
We had the great pleasure to be able to see my grad school friends Andrew and Meg, who are just back from serving at the US Embassy in Mali, and who are about to leave for Burkina Faso where Andrew is slated to be the next US ambassador! We also were joined for an Ethiopian dinner by another long-lost friend, Margot, who recently moved back to the DC area from Sri Lanka. And we had excellent Peruvian food with a Burmese friend who has spent the past three years posted to Yangon with the World Bank. You definitely cannot say that my friends don’t get around!
We also managed to do a little touring in DC, with visits to the National Gallery and the National Zoo. But it was so hot that we spent most of our time at the apartment, taking care of office work and preparing for meetings.
Our time in DC coincided with the beginning of the Republican National Convention, the less said about which, the better. We had to leave DC before it finished, however, in order to head to Houston, where we anticipated a far different reaction to that particular three-ring circus. It turns out, however, that we did not see any overt support for Mr Trump during our time in Texas (not a single Trump bumper sticker was in evidence, nor even a gun rack on the back of a pickup truck). Who knows, maybe he really won’t win come November??
I had scheduled a busy two-and-a-half days in Houston, with six meetings organised, the first of which was on the afternoon that we flew in. Having had a very early flight (we flew out of DC at 6:50am) we had to leave Abdo & Barbara’s place at the ripe hour of 4:30am, so neither of us was exactly going to be at our best that afternoon, but on top of that J2 had been feeling poorly since earlier in the week, so he opted to stay at the hotel while I headed to the meeting. The meeting was not even going to be in Houston itself, but in a town called Katy, about 30 minutes west of Houston. And on top of that, I had arranged to meet a friend from our Beijing days even further west, in the town of Needham, since she recently moved to Austin and Needham was more or less halfway for both of us. The meeting was good, and the drive was fine, but neither of us was especially hungry when we got to Needham, so the barbecue that we ordered went largely uneaten (and it wasn’t really all that good, either). But it was great to see her and at least I can say that I had Texas barbecue.
I ended up conducting the rest of the meetings on my own, too, since J2 was still not feeling well. He decided to see a doctor on the second day in Houston, so we found a “RediClinic” at a local grocery store where, for $108 he had a doctor look at him and give him a few tests–he did not have mono, which is what he suspected, so she gave him a script for a steroid to help relieve his difficulty swallowing, and an antibiotic to take in the event that that did not help him to feel better. When the pharmacist asked for our insurance I told her we were from NZ and had national medicine; at that she told us she’d give us a discount… Still, the meds cost $48 for a week’s worth.
J2’s birthday was on that same day, and I had planned to take him to a nice Mexican place for dinner, since Mexican is one of his favourite cuisines. He was not able to eat anything more than a bowl of soup, though, so instead I got him soup from a grocery store and I went out to a food truck for a simple Tex-Mex dinner of three tacos and a cold can of Texan beer from across the street. Despite being a really cheap meal–the tacos were $1.50 each, and the beer was all of $5–it was one of the best tacos I have ever had, and that cold beer was a treat on a swelteringly hot Texas evening.
We are currently waiting to fly from Houston to Los Angeles. J2 is feeling well enough that he had an actual meal for lunch–burritos at a place that was well-reviewed–and we even headed to NASA to visit the place after our morning meeting (but when we found out that tickets were $25 each, and gathered that the place would pale in comparison with the free-to-enter Air & Space Museum in DC we bagged the idea). Overall, I cannot say that I was terribly impressed with Houston. It’s a really unattractive city, resembling a big, sprawling suburb more than anything else (though the skyscrapers of downtown look nice enough, especially against the blue sky and puffy clouds), and it’s way too hot here for human habitation. But the people have been very nice, and the meetings were very positive, so I will consider this to have been a worthwhile visit. Time will tell if we’ll have to return anytime soon!