Big Heart, Big Texas

Before my first visit Texas, I had an ignorant, outdated view of the lone star state. I pictured honky tonks, big-haired Dolly Parton look-alikes, and saloons. Yes they are all still there, but the honky tonks serve expensive whisky, Dolly Parton look-alikes use sophisticated ceramic hair tools instead of hairspray and perm treatments, and saloons– converted into museums–portray an historic, elegant light of the spaces. In short, cowboys have taste. Dry weather, an oil-producing economy, living large, and peppered doses of religion makes it an arguably western version of Kuwait– the tiny emirate I grew up in–with Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston all having unique things to offer. To add, small towns give me a clearer picture of how many locals live.

Texan culture tells, instead of avoids even the ugliest of truths—an environment I wish I lived in. As much as I like Canada, there is an air of reservation here in the north that shields me from knowing what people really think, so being in Texas is a refreshing change. I like the forwardness of Texan men—I’m never trying to figure out cryptic signals which I endlessly try to decipher with Canadian guys; Texans also possess a maverick attitude that they could do something everyone thinks impossible and I love an underdog.

When I feel stuck in a place, the energy stays in my head and my creativity and desire to explore stifles and becomes disguised as laziness. Yet in Texas, I feel the opposite; energy travels down my legs. I give myself permission to explore, and then literally started moving. The infinite road excites me as the unknown usually does, which opened my heart after long years of living in monotony. The open landscape makes even my biggest soul aspirations seem tiny, and the connected, wide, wild highways will me to drive for hundreds of miles. Passing seas of hypnotizing blue bonnets and soaking sunsets balance the harsh reality of the state’s redness that bleed guns and BBQ. I want boots so I buy a pair in periwinkle blue. The boots say maverick, the colour says feminine. Cavender’s takes a lot of my money that day.

During my trip to Midland to meet an old flame, I am tempted to continue to Marfa – an artistic dot in the dusty-winded desert west. Who says oil and art don’t mix? Elmgren and Dragset think they do. An arty storefront installation of one of the world’s most reputable fashion houses exists in the middle of hot, dry nowhere; these artists had a sophisticated sense of humour.

Anywhere you visit in the world, local tastes exist in food chains. I sip on a horchata Frappuccino sold at the local Starbucks; a cold milky, cinnamon-flavoured beverage after an unbearably hot walk from my apartment to a Target in Dallas. I feel my insides literally cool.

Texas has such a strong Latinx presence that a trip to HEB is one to a different country. I find liquid queso which pleasantly shocks my taste buds. A Mexican supermarket close to my apartment sells empanadas for sixty-nine cents. Where else could you find something so tasty and cheap in these United States?

Of all the cities in Texas, Austin is where I would live: its’ live-band capital of the world status, arguably cosmopolitan population due to UT Austin’s influence, and somewhat progressive disposition is attractive to me, compared to right-wing Dallas.

One dry day I visit the State Capitol building. Its’ golden interior transforms me into an elegant stateswoman as I stroll its’ corridors; I feel the weight of state politics in the cool, regal space. As I breathe the silence of the rotunda, I look up at the ceiling and feel suspended. The dome looks almost Islamic, with its intricate circular design. It’s a welcome sight of peace for me after ending a romance a few days earlier.

I stay at a hostel in the east of town, walking around the gentrifying neighbourhood, which still has morsels of real, old Austin. Hispanic traces stand out in the form of colourful Central American-themed food trucks. I select one located in a parking lot with smooth, sealed concrete. My flip-flops–hot to the touch rising from the cement– flap against the bottoms of my feet.

A man with deep, kind brown eyes who barely speaks English sells me two-dollar tacos. Sitting on a bright red, shabby chic picnic table, I taste bits of cilantro with my barbacoa in soft taco shells, downing it with an orange-flavoured Jarritos. At the next table sit a bunch of Hispanic guys who just have finished a pick-up game of basketball, all no older than twenty-five. Their feast is larger, their appetites bigger. One of them glances at me and smiles. I hope Austin doesn’t lose this side of itself.

During one of my business trips to work SXSW—an annual, rambunctious conference that put Austin on the global scene–I stay at the Hyatt downtown. While getting ready for my first day on the trade show floor, I hear construction noises outside my hotel and am instantly transported back home. The sounds mimic those outside my own apartment on a Saturday morning, while I think of flaky chocolate croissants and coffee for breakfast. Flashes of home in a city I have only visited a handful of times is a big clue that I am deeply connected to a place.

BBQ is a staple of the Texan palate and Cooper’s BBQ in Llano did not fail to deliver. I taste the succulent brisket, creamy coleslaw, peach and pecan cobblers–two desserts that day. Go big or go home right?

A café in the downtown core serves indulgent French crepes; it stands out as a European establishment amid typical food chains with pedestrian American menus. Try their La Fromagere crepes. Anyone who attends a conference at the Austin Convention Centre passes this place on San Jacinto Boulevard. One time dining there, I meet a young woman struggling to start her own company. Wearing a bright, white pantsuit, she passes me a crisp business card. I admire her courage to start something big at a young age.

I spend the most solitary period of my travels in Dallas. I walk a lot, especially in the early evenings when I don’t want to be sequestered in my apartment; unbearable loneliness creeps even on the most emotionally self-sufficient loners. I devour as many Texan sunsets as I can muster; I stand on a bridge overlooking a busy highway and feel magical energy pulling me in. My spiritual healer tells me there is Indigenous presence grounded in the earth of Texas; it’s not all oil you know. I watch expensive sports cars, pickup trucks and minivans speed, closing the day with captivating slices of yellow, orange and pink sun rays. I balk at how such an industrial city could be so breathtaking. Who knew it was capable of creating some of my most cherished visions.I loiter at the plaza of the Performing Arts Centre where there is a type of Latin Festival happening and watch a child bite into a fresh watermelon piece with juices streaming down his cute face. I want watermelon too. I wander to Klyde Warren Park—a green space literally on top of highway 366. Sundays are about food trucks with hipster-inspired concoctions (strawberry basil ice-cream anyone?). I observe young professionals straddling the phase between just-out-of-college and proper adulthood, reflected in the awkward relationships they try to build, not only with their peers but romantic prospects. Trust me, he did you a favour by not calling.

I trot to Highland Park, one of the richest areas in the country, where high society people live. The Village theatres in the first self-contained shopping complex in America has the only theatre with I Feel Pretty showtimes that fit my schedule. I see rich, white people in luxury stores. An old couple wearing crisp linen clothes sit on a bench munching on quiches and slurping coffee. It’s too hot for them to be outside, I think to myself.

I walk to an artisan bakery. Its’ interior décor of exposed white brick and gold trimmings mix grandiose and modern in a tasteful way. I encounter a hostile mother who sneers at my long, dark curly hair and gold hoops. What are you doing in my part of town? her eyes inquire with disdain. Silent racism exists, yes Ma’am. At least the expensive salmon sandwich I buy is tasty.

Deep Ellum is where I feel most at home in this petroleum city, likely because of its’ desire to be eclectic, yet struggle to break away from old Dallas oil money. The pies at the specialty shop are authentic but rent is still too much with the eight-dollar slice being a glaring sign. I could have gotten a big shawarma meal for that—including tax and tip.

I wander into Deep Vellum books. In addition to being a bookstore, they publish translated works authored by those from marginalized communities. The owner is a young, white man named Will. Woke. Intelligent. Kind. I am a librarian by training but his ability to eloquently summarize each book on his shelves makes me feel ashamed of how little I know of even the most comprehensive collections I have built.

I keep walking and see the Dallas School of Burlesque. While this was 2018 and the city is somewhat diverse not only in ethnic demographics but cultural offerings, I am still surprised at how something as unconventional as burlesque could thrive in such a conservative town. I meet Mae Mae Graves, a drag performer who teaches at the school. Mae Mae is a force.

“Come to my show tonight” she invites me, her eyes flashing wildly. Her ability to quickly engage in conversation by generating excitement about her performance reminds me of the glitterati’s allure. I enthusiastically agree.

The Bishop Arts district is almost fully gentrified with a Texan twist. The food at Lockhart Smokehouse is mouth-watering with Southern flair, but the neighbourhood does not escape country roots, where I see side streets with wilting, uncut, grass and white, chipped paint doors. I pass ruggedly handsome Mexican construction workers, wearing hard hats and reflective vests with sweat trickling down their dark bronze faces. They could never afford any of the expensive clothes in the cute boutiques I browse, only a few blocks away. “Linda…”one of them muttered with a flirtatious smile as I walk by. I blush.

At first glance on the Dallas skyline, Reunion Tower is a deceptively short, cartoonishly cheesy structure with a round dome and bright green lightbulbs. But once I make it up in time for sunset, I see the city from an alarming, adventurous height and take so many photos I nearly max out my SD card. The live tequila sunset is worth it.

In the Knox/Henderson neighbourhood, I devour rotisserie chicken-skin tacos at Velvet Taco on a cool night, followed by red velvet cake with condensed-milk cream cheese flavoured frosting.

San Antonio is vibrant with a historically Mexican presence evident in its architecture– the Alamo is a blatant reminder. On my second trip to the city, I take a boyfriend who I think I am going to marry. Intuitively, I know he isn’t the man for me, but I want to prove my inner voice wrong. We stroll close to the water by the romantic, iconic River Walk and listen to faint music from a nearby restaurant. Then and there, I realize I feel nothing for him and know it’s time to break up. San Antonio was an audition he blew. I didn’t include a visit to San Antonio when planning my Texas itineraries after that, always looking at it longingly on my Google maps app and refraining from taking the exit ramp when I see the bright green highway sign, because it’s where I want to go with the right romantic partner. One day…

Houston: big oil, gigantic museums, NASA. More diverse than Dallas and seemingly less segregated. I hang out with my mother’s friends– all nurses– originally from the Philippines. They have families and seem to settle well into Texan life—to the point where I am astonished when I hear that they are anti-Obama. Even immigrants are Republicans in Texas, prompting me to believe that the divisions created in the United States can largely be driven by media.

 We drive past the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world and marvel at how oil finances some of the most amazing advances in the medical field. At least that’s what the optics imply.

 I visit the Natural Museum of History where I see a giant amethyst and become mesmerized by its’ clear, varying shards and shades of purple; I walk the white marble halls and indulge in the cool feeling of air-condition, having escaped stifling humid weather even though it is already October.

Our hosts take us to Grand Café Lux, and it feels like Texas is exactly where it’s supposed to be, with its lavish, gold-themed décor and humungous servings. I order a Caesar salad for my appetizer and when it arrives I assume the server misheard me.

“This is the appetizer ma’am,” she says. I balk. Everything really is bigger in Texas.

While I recognize it every time I visit, a new lens always pops in Texas revealing another layer, making me come back for more. How about that pecan cobbler now…let’s drench it in whiskey this time.

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