When I am asked about the origins of Houston’s much discussed and uniquely open-armed acceptance of the world’s cultures and peoples, I take pains to point out that such an attitude did not happen overnight, that it was instead carefully cultivated over several generations, starting in 1968, when AstroWorld opened. Some will doubt the amusement park’s foundational importance, I admit, but only if they did not live through the period of cultural isolationism from which it proved such an important corrective. Today, the glories of Asia can be enjoyed along many miles of Bellaire Blvd. and several other places besides, but then we had only the Oriental Village, with its Bamboo Shoot flume ride, Runaway Rickshaw and Passage East Hamburger Restaurant.
Was it an ersatz Asia? Of course, but a brave first step nonetheless. Promising a combination of dizzy excitement and dyspepsia previously available only at the China Doll restaurant on Antoine Dr., it became an important touchstone after Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic. A strange, exotic culture no longer seemed forbidding after one toured the Oriental Village—or, for that matter, Plaza de Fiesta, Nottingham Village or Coney Island.
It was in the Plaza, across from the nacho stand and along the Rio Misterio, that I made my own contribution to cultural diffusion, as a guide on the River of No Return. Even at 15 I was aware that the ride was nothing more than a low-rent version of the Disney parks’ Jungle Cruise, but I did not let this trouble me. Smartly attired in a safari suit, I deftly captained boatfuls of patrons down a river that was turbulent, serpentine, and dyed a bottomless blue, thereby obscuring the track guiding the skiff underneath.
“We are going on a voyage to discover the secret of the river,” I would announce over the PA system, adjusting the wheel each time I felt the boat turn. That was part of the AstroWorld–mandated script, a hardee-har-har monologue full of lines so corny, reciting them bathes me in flop sweat to this day.
“The ancient temples you see on your right were built by the Shirley Indians,” I’d mumble, shutting my eyes tightly, dreading the punchline: “Yes, they’re the famous Shirley Temples.” Sometimes, a large, red-faced woman in an “Aged to Perfection” T-shirt and visor would choke out a few laughs, but otherwise there was nothing, just the sound of dragonflies buzzing on the river and couples making out in the back of the boat.
One evening, while gliding by a herd of animatronic elephants that threatened to charge our vessel, I had a religious conversion of sorts. A strange mood descended, rendering me incapable of warning guests that the animals posed no threat “now that we’ve taken away their charge cards.” I could no more speak of the dangerous, head-shrinking natives on the river, nor the rows of clacking-toothed skulls on poles, nor the Temple of Magomba, nor the dense forest of plastic underbrush. When we finally docked, I leapt from the boat, never again to return to the River of No Return.
Looking back, I would like to think that my quitting was a statement, a protest against two-dimensional depictions of the Other. But even as I sprinted through the Plaza in an unbuttoned safari shirt, mariachi guitars quickly giving way to the koto and the gong, sombreros fading into Chinese lanterns and MSG, I know I would have stayed if they’d given me better jokes.