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.

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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

When solo traveller goes with a group

I’m not as well-travelled as I’d like to be, but everywhere I’ve been to, I’ve been with other people. Even my three visits to the US were work trips with colleagues close behind me. However, when we weren’t working, and when it was time to explore, I’d leave them to their plans and fly solo.

I’ve always been that way, and I’ve never felt bad about it either. My reasons are simple enough: I don’t want to go to the same places they do, and I don’t want to do the same activities as they. When I’m travelling with colleagues, no matter where we’re at, they will always want to go shopping. Which is fine by me, except they have people to give things to and I don’t. I’ve never been much of a shopaholic or the typical tourist, but my colleagues are. And that’s the reason I head out on my own. Of course, it’s unfair to ask them to spend time with me on activities they’d rather not indulge in.

With such strong reasoning, I discovered the joys of travelling solo. And it taught me a lot of great things too. For the first time, I was responsible for myself. And it wasn’t as scary as my parents had told me it’d be. On the contrary, it was fun. It was, of course, little unnerving at times, when I struggled to figure out the way ahead or how to handle situations, but I got through them fine. And I realised the benefits of solo travel far outweighed its negatives.

Never compromise

The inevitable factor about social living is that we have to compromise. And I did compromise in my work trips, with the flight preferences, hotel reservations, seats and transport modes, and sometimes even food. But as soon as I ventured on my own, I didn’t have to compromise anymore. I could take the bus if I wanted to or save time eating a bagel on the way rather than waiting for my co-travellers to finish a five-course veal meal. I could, most of all, stop where my heard did. 

It was the best feeling ever—freedom in every sense of the word. Since I didn’t have to endure their endeavours for souvenirs or their selfie experiments, I got more time to do what I like—whether it’s window shopping at a bakery or hiking up a hill for the breathtaking views, I loved having complete autonomy.

While I was basking in the glory of travelling alone, my teammates planned a team trip. And I was to go along with about ten other people. I had misgivings even before we left. Unused to going along with others, I didn’t know if I’d manage it. I even asked myself if it’s worth going at all, knowing full well I won’t have a good time.

But I went anyway. And I wasn’t all wrong. It wasn’t easy for me to adjust to others’ routines and plans. It wasn’t the best experience squishing seven people in a five-seater car or listening to music I don’t like all the way on a road trip. Although most of us wanted to go on a sunrise drive, I hated waking the reluctant others at 3:00 am. It pained me to be the plant eater in a meat restaurant watching the group order piece after piece.

Regardless of all this, every time we were out together, at a waterfall or a bridge, or a street walk, I enjoyed myself in spite of myself. Sure, I wish we hadn’t taken so many group photos and selfies or spent so much time waiting for the others to get ready, but I also had small moments I cherish to this day.

I didn’t have to be the only responsible one throughout. Or watch behind my shoulders all the time. Or ask for directions or pay for every meal. For once, I was part of something bigger than myself. Yes, I had to check we were heading in the right direction, and stay awake talking to prevent our driver from falling asleep, but at the end of it, it wasn’t only about me, and that didn’t feel so bad.

Go with the flow

I’d visited countless waterfalls before. But for the first time, I showered in a waterfall during the team trip. As I saw my colleagues run into the water, I was happy to join them without worrying who’ll watch my stuff (lucky for me, some of my team-mates are afraid of water).

I learnt to let the inevitable flow of events engulf me, and to my surprise, I had fun. I laughed more than I thought I would, made friends of unexpected people, and even had someone interested in taking my picture. Travelling with a group, I realised, isn’t so bad after all. After all, you get to know for real about people you thought you knew.

Solo travel makes you feel like you own the world, while group travel makes you feel belonged.

Which is better, though, is subjective. I’ll always vote for going alone, but I wouldn’t negate the thrill of travelling with others.