We were only idling on the Preston Street Bridge, it was still just the first leg of the Houston City Tour, and yet—and yet—we’d already stumbled upon that most Houston of all Houston views. Below us flowed the murky greenness that is Buffalo Bayou, the same life-giving waters from which the city had been birthed a few blocks east. To our right sat the Wortham Center. Beyond loomed a pair of vain, vaguely futuristic towers, their silvery glass skins shimmering in the morning light—“the former Enron buildings,” as our guide referred to them.
For a moment, the city’s past and future merged into a single view, and we were overcome by a strange, unfamiliar dizziness. One thing could have caused this reaction, it seemed: a hot flash of civic pride, that fleeting feeling Houstonians so often feel inclined to suppress.
Did we say one thing? We meant two. It could have been heatstroke, that unfleeting feeling that comes of touring Houston in late summer atop a double-decker bus while wearing black.
We had had our eye on these buses for some time, indeed had watched in disbelief as the bright red vehicles struggled mightily to bring a hint of London Town to our streets, the buses having variously induced shock, delight, confusion, or derision, depending on our mood. And we weren’t the only ones. Mayor Parker, a worldly woman if ever there was one, felt stymied by the things too. Why else would she have allegedly fired off an e-mail to staffers last year demanding to know why she was stuck in traffic behind—of all things—a double-decker bus?
Parker has since come around, a development that would seem to be good news for Carmen Gallegos, who launched Houston City Tours last summer with her husband, Antonio Rodriguez. Think of it as one family’s response to Houston’s arrival on the national stage, a response that those in the couple’s circle found puzzling, to say the least.
“Everyone thought we were crazy to start this company because Houston is not known for having a lot of tourists,” said Gallegos, who ran a travel agency in town before the Internet ran her out of business. “But what we noticed was that Houstonians usually know as little about their town as people who come here to visit, and we wanted to serve them as well.”
Thus did the Gallegos-Rodriguez odyssey begin, one that took them first to Alabama, where they found a guy who owned a used London double-decker bus, and then to the library, where the pair spent months preparing their spiel by poring over local history texts. A little over a year later, the company has added three more buses and tours, and expanded its reach to the Space Center, Galveston Island, and the Tanger Outlets. “Around 20 percent of our riders are from Houston,” Gallegos estimated. “The majority are convention-goers from countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Mexico.” The sky would seem to be the limit for HCT, which is planning to add a fourth bus soon as well as a Galleria tour. In fact, the only thing that has stopped them so far is engine trouble (they have to fly in mechanics from London).
On the morning of our tour, we were joined by nine other thrill-seekers, pulling away from the Hilton Americas promptly at 10.
10:05: The temperature was already 90 degrees (heat index: 98) and we’d thoroughly melted into our seats by the time we reached Minute Maid Park, tourist attraction 3 of 20 during the 90-minute tour. What better time to chat up fellow tourists?
10:07: Looking to our left, we saw a large and friendly Australian man named Andy, alone and happily snapping photos. To our right was Ismail, a middle-aged traveler from Bahrain who’d been traveling the country, stopping most recently in Fort Worth, where he’d encountered real-life cowboys at the Stockyards, an experience he described as immensely satisfying. He’d signed up for today’s bus tour in hopes of finding the Bayou City equivalent, but had so far been disappointed. “I can see office buildings anywhere in the world,” he grumbled.
10:09 We passed the Harris County Courthouse, which our driver Rodriguez described as noteworthy 1) for its historic architecture, and 2) for being the site of some of Anna Nicole Smith’s fiercest legal battles. Then it was on to Main Street, Market Square Park, and La Carafe.
10:15: Suddenly, a twangy recorded voice purporting to be Sam Houston was heard over the loudspeaker. He said things like this: “As we drive through downtown you may be wondering, ‘Where are all the people?’” Pause. “They’re underground.”
10:20: After making a left on Walker Street, we passed City Hall and Tranquility Park (“designed to look like the moon”), and then drove slowly by the city’s oldest tree, at the corner of Bagby and Capitol. The live oak is not only 400 years old, said electronic Sam Houston, it is responsible for ending the lives of 11 criminals who were hanged from its majestic branches. Pause. Next stop, the Downtown Aquarium!
10:35: The bus headed toward Midtown, passing by the ex-Enron buildings and John Kirby’s mansion as pedestrians, still unaccustomed to the sight of red buses from London on their streets, stopped in their tracks and gave us their best what-the-hell looks.
11:15 A brief pit stop at the Hermann Park Sam Houston Monument before we returned to the Hilton. Andy continued to snap away, content to take in every building and statue we encountered. For his part, Ismail remained unimpressed.
“Houston seems like it has a lot of potential,” he told us. “You have the best hospitals in the world, you have a great economy, and lots of diversity and friendly people, but why are there no horses and cowboys that I can take a picture with?”