Geoffrey Limon Jan 22
We are running Houston Rodeo as travel story this issue. We are still looking for stunning photos urgently to go with individual section (see story below). We hope you are able to help, send us as many good photos as possible for us to consider. You can drop them in our ftp:
Geoffrey Lim +659745 6666
SPH Magazines Pte Ltd
82 Genting Lane
Level 7 Media Centre
Tel: (65) 6319 6319 DID: (65) 6319 6263
Fax: (65) 6319 6227
If you wish to send me big file, please click on the link below:
Standfirst: If you peek under the pants cuffs of many a city-slick Houston tycoon, you’re likely to glimpse the tips of conservatively- styled cowboy boots. Likewise, scratch the surface of Houston’s big-city sheen and you’ll find a persistent cowboy spirit that inspires more than a million people to ‘Go Texan’ every March. EILEEN McCLELLAND leads the ride.
For three weeks every year (this year it’s March 3-22), all things Western are cause for celebration at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, the third-largest fair in the United States. Last year, the rodeo attracted 1.8 million people, including visitors from 57 countries, to Reliant Park, the city’s football stadium. Blithely consuming surprising concoctions like fried Twinkies and five-pound turkey legs on sticks, they watch as bulls and mustangs sling professional cowboys onto the dirt floor of the arena as if they were sacks of flour.
Before the action begins, 4,000 people on horseback, following 12 different routes through Texas, trot into the city centre to camp out in Memorial Park, an urban oasis usually reserved for joggers, dog-walkers and picnickers, not covered wagons. Known as trail riders, they follow historical pioneer and cowboy routes, some travelling nearly 400 miles (640km) to Houston. The trail ride culminates in a downtown rodeo parade on March 1, with floats and marching bands along with livestock and horses. The Friday prior is ‘Go Texan Day’ (this year it’s on Feb 29), when local businesses encourage employees to show their Western heritage. You might catch a glimpse of fringed vests and cowboy hats in the workplace, in a city where normally such sightings are rare.
This year, throughout March, in an outbreak of Mustang Mania, Houston streets will be decorated with a hundred 6ft-tall (1.8m) painted fibreglass mustangs, sculptural works of art. These will be auctioned to raise money for the event, which is organised by approximately 19,000 volunteers. The painted ponies will also be showcased on the grounds of Reliant Park during the rodeo. In other years, the city has been treated to similar displays – of psychedelic cows one year and 6ft-tall cowboy boots another year.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo generates more than US$345 million in business and revenue in the Houston metropolitan area. More than 400,000 hotel room nights are booked and more than 1.8 million meals are served to visitors and exhibitors every year.
So y’all must be wondering, what motivates a million-plus people to pull out their pointy-toed boots, don their black felt hats and head out to the football stadium to watch cowboys ropin’, ridin’ and fallin’ off bucking bulls?
It’s the modern rendition of a long tradition.
The cattle business boomed in the American West throughout the 19th century, when cowboys embarked on trail rides to move cattle from ranches to trains, which would ship them east to feed the burgeoning population. At the end of the trail, cowboys would hold informal competitions showcasing their skills at what were then everyday chores — roping, riding, herding, branding and horse-breaking. As railroads expanded at the end of the 19th century, long trail rides became obsolete and cowboys began showing off their skills in glitzy Wild West shows.
Modern rodeo inherited the pageantry of Wild West shows and the competitive spirit of rough-hewn cowboy competitions to become a serious sport governed by the Professional Rodeo Association. Houston’s first Livestock Show and Rodeo was born in 1932.
But not all the cowboys you see here are professionals. One crowd-pleasing amateur segment is the nightly Calf Scramble, in which determined teenagers try valiantly to rope and wrestle, coax and herd reluctant calves into a ring, future scholarship money at stake. The competition is tough. There are twice as many calves as kids.
What else will you find at the rodeo? Carnival rides and games, an international wine competition, quilt shows, and fancy Western wear, fringed coats and turquoise jewellery sitting alongside saddles and horse trailers for sale. And yes, pig races, and exhibitors competing in livestock categories from llamas to bulls, setting new standards with every new champion. The livestock auctions benefit the youth of Texas. Since 1932, the events have raised more than US$200 million for scholarships, prize money for young participants, and other youth programmes.
A ticket to the rodeo buys admission to a wide range of family-oriented experiences. Outdoors, it’s part state fair, part carnival, part food festival. Indoors is the rodeo competition, the shopping and the entertainment.
At the carnival, get an overall view of the bright lights and the festive atmosphere from atop a Ferris wheel while kids squeal and shriek on stomach-churning rides, and operators shout out to implore passersby to try their luck at clanging games.
The smell of sugar — emanating from cotton candy, pastry and funnel cakes (fried dough) – competes with the aroma of barbecued meats. Low-calorie food is in short supply.
At the food court, meals are usually served Texas-style in portions locals like to say are as big as your head – or your cowboy hat. There’s fried food of every description (fried Oreos, fried crawfish, fried pickles, fried shrimp, fried chicken, fried steak on a stick, fried cheesecake!). If all that sounds a bit over the top, sample regional specialities like savoury barbecued brisket or spicy Tex-Mex tacos, served by popular local restaurants. Choose your fare, wait in line to buy it, and then find a spot at a picnic table to enjoy the feast.
Although livestock events and merchandise booths are open throughout the day and you could easily spend a whole day wandering around the grounds, the main attraction begins most weekday evenings at 6.45pm, when spectators find their seats in the stadium to watch cowboy and cowgirl competitions.
The stadium floor is covered over in dirt. Colourfully clad rodeo clowns run back and forth to distract irritated bulls from impaling with their horns cowboys they’ve just thrown from their backs. Timing bells ring, fans cheer and an announcer narrates the action over the speakers. Cowgirls steer well-trained horses through a zig-zag course in what’s known as a barrel race. Teams of horses speed around in circles while pulling wagons for the chuck-wagon race.
The taut excitement of the rodeo events is followed by a major concert, which begins between 9 and 9.30pm, Mondays through Fridays. On the weekends, with a 3.45pm rodeo start time, the performers usually take the stage at about 6pm.
And if you think rodeo is synonymous with music with a twang, better check the schedule. Yes, Gene Autry performed in 1942, but Elvis Presley rocked the Astrodome in 1970, and set attendance records in the process.
If you want to see a real, live hat act (country-Western star wearing a cowboy hat), make sure it’s not hip-hop night or rock night.
This year’s schedule features entertainers ranging from Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to Hannah Montana, John Fogerty and Fergie, with enough Tejano and hip-hop stars included to provide a cross-cultural flavour. (Tejano is a term used to describe people of Hispanic descent born and living in Texas.) After the cowboy and cowgirl events, a circular stage is wheeled onto the field. Often, the entertainer rides out to the stage in a horse-drawn wagon, or even on horseback.
And yes, of course, the concert will sound like it is taking place inside a football stadium, but sound quality seems almost beside the point!
Box: Dress like a cowboy
If you’ve always wanted to dress like a cowboy, this is your chance to ‘Go Texan’, as the locals call it, without raising any eyebrows. Some rodeo-goers simply slip into a low-key pair of boots; others go all out — boots, hat, big belt buckle, Western-style shirt or prairie skirt. But you’re safest sticking to blue jeans, Wranglers, in particular, if you’ve got them. And technically, hats should be felt this time of year, but no one will hold a summery straw hat against you. Texans are friendly, y’all.
You can certainly shop for rodeo-wear at the rodeo itself, but if you’d prefer to Westernise your wardrobe before the event, start while you’re still in the airport.
Stelzig Ranch is conveniently located in the secure area of Terminal C of the George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport. Although it’s in an airport, the business is unique to Houston. The family started out in the mid-19th century, travelling in a prairie wagon pulled by oxen, selling handmade leather goods like saddles and harnesses to cowboys and farmers. In 1877, the family opened A. Stelzig Saddlery in Houston and added boots, apparel and blankets to their inventory. After a successful run downtown and in the Galleria area, the family opened an airport boutique in 2005. Here you can buy jewellery, boots, belt buckles and the all-important hat. More information at http://www.fly2houston.com
Another institution is the Hat Store, 5587 Richmond, which has been based in Houston since 1915 and is known to attract country stars including Lyle Lovett and Merle Haggard. Hat Store artisans specialise in steaming and hand-shaping hats for the perfect fit, dispensing advice for the care of your hat as well as sharing tales that just might be true. For example, never put your hat on your bed. It might bring seven years of bad luck. (Entry-level felt hats cost U$79.50.) More information at www.thehatstore.com
Clair Amonett at Gone to the Dogs… And the Cat Too, 2421 San Felipe, can help outfit your pet with custom-designed Western wear or cocktail attire by Susie Tritter of Dogue Designs, Couture for the Discriminating Dog. For more information, call 1 713 522 0780.
BOX: Upsize All
Houston, with a population that exceeds 2 million, is the fourth- largest city in the United States. It boasts a towering downtown that grew into an architectural landmark fuelled by oil-boom money of the 1970s and early ’80s. The skyscrapers of most US cities were designed and built in the 1920s, but Houston’s later downtown development lends it a post-modern air.
Its architecture still elicits admiration from visitors not accustomed to walking through concrete canyons flanked by skyscrapers like the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower, the 75-storey structure designed by I.M. Pei, which, at 305m, is the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. I’m partial, though, to the 56-storey red granite Bank of America building, designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, in 1984. Gables inspired by the canal houses of the Netherlands reach elegantly skyward and the structure’s tiered, tapered shape also hints at cathedrals.
Houston’s downtown also gets a nod of approval from Peregrine falcons, which patrol its skies and rooftops on their migratory route, and swoop down looking for prey.
Underneath those towers, there’s the 25-block Downtown Tunnel System, each piece privately funded by businesses, providing office workers a subterranean route to lunch without having to venture out into summer heat and humidity, a climatic condition that tends to linger well into autumn.
Just seven miles (11km) west of downtown, Houston’s other iconic area is Uptown, home of The Galleria, the largest mall in Texas. Its 2.4 million square feet of retail space is visited annually by 24 million visitors. It houses an ice skating rink, two Westin hotels, three office buildings, and 350 stores including Macy’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Cartier, Chanel, Tiffany & Co., and Louis Vuitton. (Use valet parking to avoid the labyrinthine underground parking space.)
Healthcare here is supersized, too. The Texas Medical Center boasts 46 non-profit health and research institutions, including medical schools and 13 hospitals on 1,000 acres (404.68 hectares) in the South Main area of Houston, employing more than 73,600 people. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is just one of the institutions with a worldwide reputation for patient care, research, education and prevention programmes.
Development is equated with progress in Houston, which is characterised by unimpeded sprawl and constantly reinvented neighbourhoods uninhibited by zoning laws or much regard for historical structures. Land in neighbourhoods within the city’s Inner Loop is now coveted for its proximity to downtown. So older bungalows are sacrificed to make room for three- and four-storey townhouses and patio homes.
This time of year, modern, urban Houston embraces its
Western roots. Houston does have its share of barbecue joints and country-Western honky tonks (one of them, the Hideaway, on site at the rodeo), but it also boasts tony jazz clubs, Asian-fusion bistros, world-class theatres and museums, a lively, locally grown hip-hop scene, a wildly diverse population and an international vibe. In many ways, it’s more than you might expect.
Box: The Rail Route
Houston isn’t known for innovation in public transportation. Texans love their cars, pickups and SUVs, and in Houston, there’s a longstanding tradition of making the highways grow to fit the traffic. The Katy Freeway, for example, I-10 west, which links downtown with Houston’s popular western suburbs, is in the process of being expanded to 18 lanes.
So when the 7-mile (11km) electricity-powered Metro Light Rail launched its first leg, the Red Line, in January 2004, it was somewhat controversial and wholly revolutionary. Still, thousands of curious Houston residents greeted it with the enthusiasm and curiosity usually reserved for a chili cook-off. The train cars were so packed during the free, introductory period that few riders enjoyed the luxury of a seat. Half a million riders bought rail tickets in the first month of operation.
For visitors, Metro Rail opens up a new world of options which do not involve a rental car, a cab or a GPS. From north to south, the whole route takes about 30 minutes. (If you were cabbing it or driving you might spend 30 minutes or an hour, depending on traffic flow.) Buy a US$2 all-day ticket (available at any of the 16 stations) and you’re ready to go. Do make sure you have a ticket as Metro police board the trains regularly to check.
You can catch the Metro Rail from any downtown station to Reliant Stadium to visit the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Along the route is the theatre district near the Preston Street Station (www.houstontheaterdistrict.com) as well as a stretch of trendy nightclubs along Main Street. If you want to go to Houston Zoo, Hermann Park, and the scenic campus of Rice University, there are Metro stops nearby.
The Metro Rail also travels to the Museum District, providing easy access to the city’s top museums (www.houstonmuseumdistrict.org) and the Texas Medical Center.
BOX: To be used as part of a map showing the route of the Metro and highlights along the way.
There are 16 stations in all. Here are some highlights along the route, from north to south:
Preston Station downtown is near Hotel Icon, the Magnolia Hotel, Hotel Alden and the Lancaster. Also nearby are Bayou Place (restaurants, a pool hall and the Angelika movie Theater, the Alley Theatre, the Wortham Theater, the Hobby Center, Minute Maid Park (home to the Houston Astros), Jones Hall and the Downtown Aquarium (a theme restaurant with aquariums and a Ferris wheel (www.aquariumrestaurants.com/downtownaquariumhouston). Also J.P. Morgan Chase Tower (the tallest building in Texas). Off the beaten track is La Carafe, a cozy wine bar at 813 Congress.
Main Street Square Station downtown is near the Park Shops in Houston Center, Macy’s department store, the George R. Brown Convention Center (www.houstonconventionctr.com ) and the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium. Claim to fame? A wide selection of world beers.
Bell Station is downtown, near the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets NBA team and Rockets star Yao Ming. Backstage tours are scheduled between 10 am and 3pm, Mondays-Thursdays, and Saturdays on non-event days. Admission is US$7 for adults and US$7 for children 12 and under. More information at www.houstontoyotacenter.com
Ensemble/HCC Station is in Midtown, near the Houston Community College main campus and the Ensemble Theatre as well as live music venue the Houston Continental Club (www.continentalclub.com ), Julia’s Bistro a critically acclaimed Latin-flavoured restaurant, and Sig’s Lagoon, an eclectic record store. Other nearby restaurants worth a visit are t’afia (a proponent of local ingredients), Mai’s Restaurant (Vietnamese) and the Breakfast Club.
Museum District Station serves the Houston Museum District. The blockbuster Ethiopian exhibit, Lucy’s Legacy, continues through April 27 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Craft in America is the largest show ever hosted by the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Pompei: Tales of an Eruption opens March 2 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. More information at www.houstonmuseumdistrict.org
Hermann Park/Rice University Station. A jogging trail surrounds the scenic campus, where oaks provide shade. Hermann Park offers 500 acres (202 hectares) of recreational space, the Houston Garden Center, an 8-acre (3 hectares) lake and the family- friendly Hermann Park Miniature Train. More information at www.hermannpark.org
Memorial Hermann Hospital/Houston Zoo Station. The Houston Zoo has more than 4,500 permanent wildlife residents living on 55 acres (22 hectares) adjacent to Hermann Park, including lions, tigers, grizzly bears, African wild dogs and Asian elephants. More information at www.houstonzoo.com
Reliant Park Station is near convention and entertainment facilities including the Reliant Astrodome, Reliant Stadium, Reliant Arena and Reliant Center. This is the stop for the rodeo and NFL Houston Texans’ games. During the rodeo, the last south-bound train leaves Reliant Park Station at 1.10am, Sunday-Thursday, and at 2.35am Friday and Saturday. The last north-bound train (towards downtown) leaves Reliant Park Station at midnight Sunday-Thursday and at 1.25am Friday and Saturday. More information at www.reliantpark.com
END OF METRO RAIL BOX
BOX: Reach for the moon
Space Center Houston brings a transcendent experience down to Earth. The visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center displays the largest sample of lunar rocks in the world, including a piece of the moon that visitors can touch in the Starship Gallery.
Space Center Houston, about 25 miles (40km) south-east of downtown Houston, has hosted more than 11 million guests from all over the world since it opened in 1992, entertaining and educating them with exhibits and films.
The March spotlight is on the Apollo manned flights. Artefacts from the era (1961-1975) include astronaut Pete Conrad’s moon suit worn on Apollo 12, astronaut Mike Collin’s bio-isolation garment worn aboard Apollo 11 and a pressure suit from the Apollo Lunar Lander.
Also on display is the podium from which President John F. Kennedy delivered an inspirational speech on May 25, 1961, in which he vowed that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. Five other Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the moon, the last one, Apollo 17, in 1972. Apollo 17 is now on display in the Starship Gallery. Although the historic launches took place at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA’s Houston facilities are the site of planning and astronaut training.
Two levels of tours are available at Space Center Houston:
Entry level: US$18.95 gets you entry into the visitor’s centre along with a NASA Tram Tour, which provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Historic Mission Control Center, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility or the current Mission Control Center. Also on the route is the Saturn V Complex at Rocket Park.
Deluxe: The Level Nine tour, open to only 12 people per day, costs US$79.95; reservations must be made at least the day before. The tour, available at 11.45am, Monday-Friday, lasts four or five hours, and includes Mission Control and the astronauts’ training facility, a space environment simulation lab and lunch in the astronauts’ cafeteria. Call 1 281 283 4755 for reservations.
Information: Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Parkway, is open every day except Christmas. Admission is US$18.95 for adults, US$14.95 for children aged four to 11 and US$17.95 for seniors. Hours are 10am-5pm, Monday-Friday, and 10am-6pm, Saturday and Sunday. For more information call 1 281 244 2105 or visit
BEST TIME TO VISIT:
Any time but summer, Houston’s sticky season, when the temperature hovers around 94°F (34.4°C). March and April are about as good as it gets, often with clear, sunny skies, reasonable levels of humidity and moderate temperatures.
Singapore Airlines flies 4 times weekly from Singapore to Houston.
Requirements vary. Go to
www.usimmigrationsupport.org/visa for information.