We visited Austin without a pre-conceived notion about the city or its people. The excitement to visit the US notwithstanding, we had no information about the city. But for the delay created by British Airways flight 191 from Heathrow we would have arrived in this beautiful city two hours earlier and enjoyed the freedom and space the city has to offer.
Before I describe the city a special mention needs to be made about the airlines. The BA flight delay came on the back of the last leg of our journey after the gruelling 9.5 hours flight from Mumbai (pity all us who have to travel economy in cramped quarters), then the long immigration and custom procedure and the scheduled 5.5 hour wait for the connecting flight. The pilot’s announcement while we were taxiing for take off put paid to all our hopes for British Airways. He said, quite unapologetically that they had to return to the parking bay because they had left behind some safety equipment. To further drive home his convoluted point he continued “we cannot take chances on a long flight.” The rest of the journey was uneventful except for some reason the blinds in the economy section we occupied were pulled down and lights were shut off for most parts of the journey. The gruelling treatment did help us get over the jet lag phenomenon with three time zones changing, as we could not sleep at all.
But for a small incident at the Austin customs our trip was superb. Firstly, the bags arrived after a long delay, after which we could approach the customs desk for clearance. We stood behind an Indian lady who unfortunately could not speak English (it delayed the procedure further) and waited patiently for our turn. It turned out that she was carrying food articles from India and had to be further scrutinised and cleared by their Agricultural department. Since we were immediately behind we were subject to the same scrutiny although one look at us (well-groomed, evidently from the richest echelons of Indian society and extremely educated compared to many of our American counterparts—certainly better than the officer in charge) she could have profiled us differently. But no such luck. We were sent for a check too, but good senses prevailed as another officer inside immediately set us free even without a glance on the bags.
The taxi ride with a native american was cheerful. He opened the conversation with welcome to the best event in Austin—”day after tomorrow will be the hottest day in Austin with temperatures expected touch 45 degrees centigrade.” Despite his sombre pronouncement his tone and character got a smile to our faces. Within fifteen minutes we pulled under the porch of the Downtown Hyatt Regency. As we alighted we were delighted to see an over reaching atmosphere of friendliness all around. From the first person we met to the last person at the airport we were greeted with warm, friendly people—an indication of the care-free, secure life they lead in this warm city.
Over the next few days we visited the south congress avenue dotted with eateries, pharmacies and shops (selling artefacts, clothes, uncommon objects and accessories) at various points of the day. At nights we were lost in the reverie of 6th street and Rainey Street. While 6th street with millions of watering holes was the place to let your hair down and enjoy a drink with teenagers, Rainey street was more upscale. Both these places (strangely confined to only two streets) have old homes and warehouses converted into “pub and grub” places. Millions of youngsters in hot pants, tattoos and wild hair dotted the landscape. In true american style, they waved, cheered and had a good time. Policemen on horses paraded the streets (surprisingly effective). Vehicles are blocked off on the street at night (especially weekends) and we took to the street like the locals and had a wild time.
Austin is the hometown of Olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong. Notwithstanding his fall from grace—drugs, the city carries the spirit of cycling within its soul. Almost everyone is physically active—cycling, running, canoeing, walking without heed to the heat or sunshine. I used our time to walk around the very long trail along the Lady Bird Lake once and cycled around a longer stretch on another day. Bicycles are available to rent at various stations. All you need is credit card to ride out with one of the bikes. It’s inexpensive and perhaps the best way to enjoy Austin.
Everyone is sweating, red and hot from the physical activity but happy, jolly and warm as adrenaline flows smoothly through the veins. It’s an amazing city with wonderful people. I wish I could live in a city like this—I can assure you cycling around Mumbai is pathetic compared to these pristine surroundings. Imagine cycling along a lake with walkers and joggers sharing the same path and everyone cheerful and waving at each other and this despite the heat and sweat.
The Hyatt Regency Austin hotel is very well situated downtown just off the south congress avenue—a busy district with shopping, eateries and offices. The view from our hotel rooms overlooking the lady bird lake (especially the flight of bats every night) is breathtaking. Millions of bats live below the bridge over the lake and come out at night for feeding. People stand and watch this spectacle from the bridge although we could see it from within the confines of our hotel room.
The hotel staff like the rest of the residents of Austin are extremely warm and friendly and one could immediately blend in as a local. The “guacamole” is highly recommend as a dish and one should not miss it on their stay here.
One incident deserves a special mention. One evening, after a long and arduous day, walking and shopping we fell off to sleep, only to wake up at 1:00 am ravenously hungry. We enquired with the hotel reception only to be told that the hotel kitchen was closed for the day—the last order was at 11:00 pm. Disappointed, wondering what we could find to eat at this hour, we were about to replace the receiver when she gave out two telephone numbers. She informed us that we could review their menus on line and place food orders. True to her word, we had delicious caesar salad and a pizza delivered to our room within 30 minutes.