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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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.

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.

Texas State Capitol

You can’t leave the city of Austin without visiting the Texas State Capitol. I knew that, of course, but I still put it off until the end of my trip. When, at last, I took a bus after work to the Capitol—halfway across the city—it was almost 6.00pm.

Daylight Savings Time gave me some more time to capture the magnificent architecture before it was too late. And I spent a good half hour inching my way towards the great lawn and the dome. I walked around the building for a while, noticing its minute carvings and polished exterior. When I approached the double doors and the unassuming door knob that perched on it, I wondered if I was too late. Perhaps they’d closed for the day, I thought. Nothing about the doorway suggested that visitors were welcome.

There was no guard or any guidance to indicate that I wasn’t trespassing.
Perplexed and also curious, I turned the door knob anyway. It didn’t budge. I tried again. It still remained head fast.

Hating myself for not coming earlier, I turned to leave. Just then the door on the other side opened and a couple of people exited. How the hell did they get in?

I asked.

“Push the door harder,” they told me.

I did, and viola, it opened. And within was a huge conveyor belt and about seven guards. My bag and I went through separate screens and I reached the other side only to feel my jaw drop a few inches.

I faced a large corridor with rooms on either side. I looked around and realised I stood in the centre of the dome and the corridor was one of the four that led away from the centre. Craning up, I noticed four identical floors.

Texas State Capitol in Austin
Texas State Capitol in Austin

Lining the walls of the centre were portraits of former governors, mayors, and members of the Austin parliament. Walking along one corridor, I saw some rooms lit up from the inside and some sealed shut.

Most of the lit rooms also had a note inviting visitors to open them. Feeling adventurous, I turned the knob on one.

Well, the Capitol was a tourist destination, what else would a closed room have other than some interesting exhibits?

Turns out that the closed rooms had people in them discussing important state affairs.

I’d walked into one such meeting. Yikes. There I was, half-leaning into the room with my hand still on the door knob, taking the three suited state officials inside by complete surprise. They were in mid-conversation and I stumbled to find my apologies. How I wished I’d knocked first.

“Er—did I just walk into something important?”

One of them shook his head smiling. “Oh, no. It’s just the three of us, talking.”

“Er—ok. Er—sorry.”

“No problem at all.” All three of them threw a gracious smile at me. I retreated and shut the door.

And I hit myself on the head. These were offices of State representatives. The rooms even had a card on the side saying whose office it is. And I thought I was in a museum and everything would be stationary.

Getting over that initial embarrassment and shock, I went around the rest of the building. Here and there were slabs of posters explaining the various architectural choices of the building. Some even included little stories of how parts of the building was built. Although most of the rooms were offices and more closed doors I didn’t feel like tapping into, there were also a few large rooms with exhibits from ancient Austin.

For a state that’s stereotyped as all sand and desert, I was surprised to learn that Austin’s primary business was once farming and cotton growing. Behind glass boxes preserved with utmost care were tools of the trade, sample grains, and even a letter from a son to his father explaining he’d made good progress with the farm that year. It was like visiting a part of Austin’s history that’s lost amidst heavy accents in cowboy movies.

I realised I’d nurtured a complete false impression of Austin and Texas. And those artefacts opened my mind never to form opinions based on televised screening.

For the next few hours, I walk round and round, stopping at every office to read whose it is and to strut past it, thinking to myself and role-playing,

“Yeah, I am at the Senate Chamber,”

“I’m just outside the Governor’s Room,”

“I’m about to hear the speaker at the House of Representatives,”

“Yes, I had to come to the Supreme Court Courtroom for something and then to the Court of Appeal to rest my case.”

Standing outside the courtrooms, I couldn’t help but feel like being in the scene of Harry Potter’s hearing at the Ministry of Magic.

After a lot of fun-filled mind conversations, it was time to go. Darkness was beginning to fall and as I left with amazement, I also managed to capture the cause of it: the dome at night.

Texas State Capitol in Austin at night
At night: Texas State Capitol in Austin

If you find yourself in Austin, don’t miss the Capitol views.

Seeker

To traverse tireless

mile after mile after mile

to hear the soul speak