Why Austin

A while ago, I was lucky enough to stay in Austin for a couple of weeks while visiting the US on a work trip. My first instinct of the city, which kept growing with each dawn, is that it’s weird.

Austin is a weird city.

Now you could interpret that in many ways, and you should too because every street corner had something amusing that made me go “huh?”

I don’t mean that as a negative trait, though. It’s just that Austin is so… weird. And I was only there for two weeks!

The thing I found most peculiar and exciting about Austin is that it’s an amalgamation of some of the things other cities are known for. It’s as artsy as San Francisco, dry and hot as the Australian outback (well, I’ve seen pictures), folksy like Portland, industrial as Chicago (ok, not too much—no city can be as Chicago), well-made like Pleasanton, and difficult for pedestrians—just like Downtown Miami.

I don’t say that to brag that I’ve been to so many places, but my point is that Austin has so much more than what I expected to experience there. To cap it all, Austin has some of the greenest localities I’ve ever seen—and it sure as hell not what I expected to see from the stereotypical, cowboy state of Texas.

Let’s start with the art, shall we? There’re a few murals all around Austin that’s so iconic that they’ll show up on your map. I was following the route to the supermarket when I noticed my map pointing out a mural called Greetings from Austin. There’s more too—Keep Austin Weird, Hi, How Are You, You’re my Butter Half, I Love You so Much, Welcome to South Austin and so many more that jump at you from the most unexpected street corners. As if that weren’t enough, the local supermarket, HEB, has their wall smeared with Austin-ness. Complementing that are the murals inside Trader Joe’s which span off of the famous street murals.

Adding to fascinating artwork were creative signboards outside the many shops. It seemed to me like every business owner had taken considerable effort and interest in designing the exterior of their stores or restaurants.

Making matters more attractive is an entire street, its footpath illustrated with quirky messages and social awareness campaigns. I was more than stunned when I saw in the middle of a botanical garden, a large spade with the lettering, Scoop the Poop Austin.

Scoop the poop

All that, though strange and unexpected, was rather enjoyable. After all, you could say it’s Austin’s way of attracting tourists—they have great food trucks, the Texas State Capitol building where you can walk into state representatives’ offices without knocking, nature reserves that have streams running through them, a bat colony that people flock to watch, point, and gawk, and the infamous 6th Street which overflows with liveliness, bar with loud live music, shops and museums, and so many inviting folks.

Texas State Capitol

Aside from all of that, there’s one thing in Austin you’ll never find elsewhere—moonlight towers. Back in the 1880s and 1890s, moonlight towers were famous guardians of the night in many cities across the United States and Europe. One hundred sixty-five feet tall and illuminating a radius of 1500 feet, these light towers were all dismantled over time—except the thirteen towers still standing in Austin—the last ones in the world.

Moonlight tower in Austin, Texas
Moonlight tower

When people ask what’s great about Austin, you can’t say name one thing. It’s the little things with deep meaning and value that make the city such a great place to visit. If you’re ever anywhere near Austin, it’s well worth a trip.

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A bat story

It’s fair to say that the Batman franchise (Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, in particular) helped a lot of youth overcome their apprehension of bats. It’s even possible that the cartoons and the movies also led children to develop a liking to these creatures of the night. Because they sure did for me.

That’s not to say I love bats and would nurture them as pets. However, I don’t despise them as I would’ve hadn’t I grown up watching the movies and cartoons. To that extent, it’s worth crediting Hollywood and DC. So now when kids hear that bats are endangered, they’d stay—ears piqued with curiosity—and hear more instead of whizzing away in their scooters. And it’s all thanks to show-business, that an entire community of bats is now the centrepiece every night in Austin.

Let’s back up a little.

If you look up things to do in Austin, Texas, you’ll, no doubt, come across something along the lines of “watch the bats under the Congress Avenue bridge.” It’s nothing out of the ordinary—the structure of the bridge is so that millions of bats have made it their abode, and in the evenings, they fly out from under the bridge to do what bats always do at night—hunt and party.

Congress Avenue Bridge Bats in Austin, Texas
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats in Austin, Texas

I heard about it too, when I was in Austin, and since I had nothing better to do than stare at the darkening sky, decided to pay a visit.

When, following my map, I approached the clearing under the bridge, I expected a handful of tourists. What I saw, instead, was a multitude of people—tourists and locals guiding their friends—all awaiting the beginning of the show.

It’s as natural and ordinary as crows flying to their nests after sundown. However, so many people have never seen a bat in their life that they make a day out of this experience—some bring picnic chairs and blankets, and of course, cameras—to capture a glimpse of the flying mammals.

Although it was already dark, it wasn’t enough to lure the bats outside. Looking around for a comfortable spot to stand, I noticed a middle-aged man standing by a table, with pamphlets and souvenirs, explaining bat behaviour to a few eager listeners. Walking up to him, I heard him mention that the Mexican free-tail bats are soar by the millions every night from mid-March through October.

He was part of an organisation that advocated bat protection and safety. An entire non-profit association for bat welfare—ha! Their work is rather impressive—offering a sanctuary for orphan and injured bats, establishing protective measures for bat deaths caused by white-nose syndrome and wind turbines, and conducting awareness programmes across the globe—because, well, one of the main reasons bats are dying is because we fear them. The Congress Avenue Bridge is just one bat colony—supported by Austin Bat Refuge.

Not only is the bridge home to these bats, but when I looked around, I realised that the entire underside of the bridge is a monument to these fantastic little creatures. Stone pillars with bat illustrations explained their food and flying patterns. And at the corner of the street, leading to the bridge is the massive Night Wing—a rotating metal sculpture depicting the grandeur that’s bats.

Night Wing statue at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas
Night Wing statue at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas

I waited for about twenty minutes before the bats emerged from the dark depths of the bridge. As I saw them fly in circles above my head, long wings cutting through the air, pointy ears picking up the slightest of movements, extending tails hovering mid-air, and breaking the invisible barriers in their way, I couldn’t help but fall in love with these under-appreciated guards of the darkness.

It’s amazing how quick we humans are to judge the things we don’t understand. Just because bats aren’t colourful and flimsy, doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent or beautiful. Standing below the bat flight, I realised that we lose so much by fearing the unknown.

Good to know: There’re thousands more non-profit organisations dedicated to bat welfare, most of which come under the Bat Conservation International.

Crawling around Austin

I love exploring a city on foot. I enjoy walking so much that I don’t even care if the place I’m visiting isn’t ideal for walking. Take Austin, for instance. Unlike where I’m from, Austin has dedicated sidewalks and decent pathways. In spite of that, though, you can’t help but feel that the city is more of a car owner’s paradise.

No matter where you want to go, whether a grocery store, a shopping mall, the Texas State Capitol, or even to see the Congress Bridge bat show—it takes you at least 45 minutes on public transport or almost an hour and a half on foot to reach from anywhere else in the city. Although that makes it sound like Austin is so widespread with massive ground space, it isn’t. It’s a tiny town—gorgeous, mind you—but with such twisted bus routes that take forever to cover a distance that’d take 10 minutes in a car.

Walking in Austin, Texas
Walking in Austin: 33 minutes on the bus to cover 0.8 miles.

Regardless of all that, what’s great about visiting for just two weeks, is that Austin’s hard-to-navigate systems didn’t dissuade me. Instead, I took it as a challenge to explore as much as I could, by walking or taking the bus whenever possible.

And so you can imagine my amusement when I saw an activity where tourists got drunk and biked throughout the city.

It’s called the Pub Crawler, and five minutes of searching on Trip Advisor will have you spend a good amount on this mad, but a rather fun tour. Even though I’d heard of it before, I didn’t trust myself to drink and ride around the city while on a solo trip. Not to mention that I’m quite stingy when it comes to engaging in typical touristy stuff.

I was returning from a splurge at the Whole Foods Market (fun fact: Whole Foods was founded in Austin), and as I turned into Bowie Street, what should I see but the Crawler in front of me! I’d seen it not long ago, full of enthusiastic tourists and locals alike, laughing at themselves and the ridiculousness of pedalling and drinking at the same time. They seemed to have such a great time that I couldn’t help but smile at them myself. Now, however, the crawler stood empty with the owners sitting on either side of the vehicle, their chin on one palm and a phone on the other.

Pub Crawler, an interesting tourist activity in Austin, Texas
Pub Crawler is an interesting tourist activity in Austin, Texas.

Compared to the high-level energy I’d seem emanating from the Crawler earlier, it now resembled a deserted and haunted building. Most of Austin’s streets don’t see a lot of pedestrian activity, and so as far as the eye could see, the road was void of anything but the Crawler and me.

It wasn’t scary—far from it. It was weird to realise that without tourists and their crazy fixations, everyday life is quiet, routine, and boring even. For a moment there, I saw what the city would look and feel like to a local. That’s when I understood that we take things so much for granted that we seldom appreciate the blue skies and the fruit-studded trees.

We all seem to rely on aliens to show us how fun our lives can be.

Love one another

Love One Another - mural in the streets of New York City
In the streets of New York City
For fleeting strutters

a reminder, speed breaker

notes on street corners

Forward march

The road to Mount Bonnel in Austin, Texas
The road to Mount Bonnel in Austin, Texas

With each step forward

advancing miles at a time

falls back, history