The Texan city of Austin would like to think so. Proud of its alternative culture and buzzing music scene, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin weird”. The dictionary definition of weird has the word’s meaning as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly” or more informally “very strange; bizarre”.Compared to America’s many identikit cities, some parts of Austin have an indy feel, but is this enough to warrant the label?
Google “weird Austin” and there’s no end of blogs and e-zine articles trying to justify the term. From watching bats leave their roost under South Congress bridge to playing Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there are no end of suggestions.
But read a little more carefully and you’ll perhaps find such writers are a little economical with the facts. There are suggestions that drinking a particular cocktail or watching a band play live in a bar is weird. Given that you can do that in any major city, I don’t see how that qualifies as weird.
There’s a whole load of street murals which are a common sight in many a city these days and a cathedral of junk – but isn’t that just someone’s interpretation of art? Someone even went so far as to suggest the local propensity for eating tacos qualified the place as weird. Seriously?
I didn’t take to Austin. In its defence, I was there for the weekend – and Memorial Day weekend at that. Entertainment venues were heaving, the restaurants were packed and added to the mix was a bunch of thunderstorms that brought unusually high humidity for the time of year.
The music was pumping, the bass was thumping. If you’re 21, you’d have loved it, but for this middle-aged traveller, it wasn’t ideal. Ginny’s had a classic car show on its forecourt and was even more rammed than the regulars said it should be. The bats left it so late to come out from their hiding place it was too dark to see them when they did. Disappointing it was, weird it was not.
And I’m not alone. Google “Austin is overrated” and you’ll also find plenty of results. For those of us that like to sightsee as well as socialise, there’s a relatively limited number of sights to see. OK it has the State Capitol, which as you’d expect from Texas is bigger than everyone else’s and impressive inside. There’s a couple of good museums, including the LBJ Library and Museum dedicated to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The riverfront is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. There’s a certain charm to SoCo, with its quirky shops and the excellent Jo’s for coffee, but it’s bisected by the busy road which gives the district its name.
Amidst the noise, the many panhandlers that were just a stone’s throw from 6th Street and the Saturday night vomit on the pavement, one place stood out. The Broken Spoke had an excellent band, Two Tons of Steel, and a comfortable family vibe.
Sure, people were drinking, but there were also granddads dancing with their granddaughters and young couples deep in conversation in between masterful circuits of the dance floor. (Yes, the music wasn’t so loud as to drown out their voices.) My brief Texas Two Step lesson wasn’t sufficient to give me the confidence to join them but it was fun to watch. From the moment we stepped through the door to be greeted by an elderly cowboy in a rhinestone studded shirt, we were welcomed. By the time the charming Ben Rogers doffed his Stetson and took a break from propping up the bar to call us a cab home, we were made to feel like we came every weekend.
You see, what made Austin special was its residents. It’s that Southern hospitality thing kicking in again. In every venue and on every street corner, locals were keen to share their city. You don’t need a guidebook in Austin, you just need to hang around and chat. There’ll be no end of people to talk to.
We were given recommendations for places to eat, drink and shop without soliciting for information. What’s more, they turned out to be good. I’d have not known about the Iced Turbo coffee at Jo’s in SoCo if the friendly gent at the lights hadn’t passed the time of day, nor would I have found Easy Tiger, its yummy bratwurst a welcome change from the ubiquitous (but tasty) Mexican fare.
So, no, Austin’s not weird, no matter how much it would like to be, and as a tourist destination it’s a little dull, but its welcome is possibly the best you’ll get in the Lone Star state.
I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas. I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:
It’s outside my comfort zone. Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel. I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary. Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.
The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus. I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week. This is firmly within my comfort zone. This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.
The former is a departure from my usual travelling style. Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport. There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy. I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip. The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research. I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas. Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.
In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging. I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read. I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka. I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms. I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal. I really must look that up. A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too. I’m happy. Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.
It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas. Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place. It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen. And that’s a shame.
In May I’m off to Texas, and I’m already excited. But this isn’t my usual kind of trip. This time I’m travelling with a company called Traveleyes, who pair sighted travellers with the visually impaired for a trip which promises to enrich the experience for both types of tourist.
The brainchild of Amar Latif, an entrepreneur who went blind in his late teens, the company specialises in offering trips which make independent travel a reality for the blind and partially sighted. Sighted travellers are offered a hefty discount on the price of the tours. In return, they accompany a different traveller each day, guiding the person to their own individual requirements.
Included sightseeing programmes promise to make this a trip to remember. I’m looking forward to visiting Austin, San Antonio and the Alamo, where we’ll be taking guided walking tours to unlock the history of these places. I’m especially keen to visit Galveston, devastated by the USA’s deadliest hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6000 people. It’s long since been rebuilt, of course, but it will be interesting to compare notes with the experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
There are also some activities on the programme which you might not expect. A ranch stay forms part of the programme and we’ll be riding out on horseback to enjoy the local scenery. As a novice rider, I’m a little daunted about how I’m going to be able to guide another horse if I’m not fully in control of my own, but I’m trusting that both Traveleyes and the ranch have already thought of that.
Traveleyes have sent through their document on the do’s and don’ts of how to act as a sighted guide and I’m going to be studying it carefully. One thing I do know, however, is that I’m going to learn as much as the people I’m paired with. I can’t wait to see Texas from a different perspective to my own. Check back at the start of the summer and find out how I got on.
If you’d like to find out more about Traveleyes, please visit their website: