Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Thursday, May 24, 2007

'Keep Austin weird' the bumper stickers and technicolour t-shirts proudly proclaim, but such sloganeering is unnecessary; Austin couldn't be anything but weird. Four days about town is a tumble through the Texan looking-glass.

Despite being the warm, gooey, liberal heart of a vocally Red-publican state, Austin is proudly proudly Texan. More than one Austinite had me pause while they pointed proudly up one of the many flag poles. Texas, i was told a number of times, is the only state allowed to fly its flag at the same height as the USofA national flag.

A condition of Texas joining the USofA was that it retain the right to secede from the union at any time.

The Texas state capital building is in Austin, and a colossal thing it is, enormous white dome sitting atop a great pink granite building. Inside an enormous crest commemorates the six flags that have flown of Texas: the French flag, the Spanish, the Mexican, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States, and the United States. The flags, the secession clause, the enormous portrait of Davey Crockett on the lobby wall - it is clear that Texas is a state that values its independence highly.

So when the revolution comes, will independence be bought with the pistols of Texan mythology or the bags of cash of Texan reality?

Austin, like Houston, is awash with money. The university of Texas is a massive institution. Its prestigious research centre boasts (i think) the first ever photograph anywhere, as well as an original Gutenberg bible. These are items with no cultural heritage in Austin. But they are a part of the great American buy-up of global culture.

To feel the full weirdness of Austin, though, i stepped out of the institutions and walked about town. Like all of Texas, Austin is a diverse place. The myth of the white macho frontiersman has long faded from the earth. Today Texas attracts a smorgasbord of international cultures. And while people of all shapes colours and sizes are pulling on fancy leather cowboy boots, it is Texas that is being shaped and moulded by this international richness. My friend Nazanin, who i was in town to visit, is a proud member of the Persian-Texan community. It is a rich and poignant paradox, that Iran and America can meld so effortlessly on the streets of Austin, while remain at such stubborn loggerheads in the strange world of diplomacy.

In the evenings a crowd gathers, tourists and locals rubbing shoulders on the bridge at the edge of downtown. It is a polyglot group, English and Spanish in equal portions, and a smattering of Asian and other European tongues sliding between these. The people have turned out to see Austin's bat population take to the air. Beneath the bridge hundreds of thousands of tiny bats are crammed into humid little crannies, waiting for the sky to darken.  Bat colonnies have been fostered in town for over a century, their original purpose to protect the citizens from insect-borne Malaria. But again, the wild frontier days are long gone. Now the bats are a part of the rich and proud local mythology.  When the sun is down they pour forth, a river of shapes in motion, flitting over the sluggish green river below. They move too fast to be individually distinguished, but appear first as a flow over the river and then as a haze over the trees. then they are gone into the darkness.

Bats, pride, multiculturalism. These are a part of the Austin backdrop. What fills up the hours of the day?

The particulars of Austin life are hard to define. In the evenings 6th street explodes to life and music thumps through the air. Rickshaws zip from club to club. And yet despite the energy most people are sitting languidly, enjoy Austin's signature live music, eating, drinking and being merry.

It takes up a surprising amount of time, eating. The food is excellent, but again expectation-defying. No sign of Texan BBQ or obscene slabs of meat. But a plethora of vegan options, enormous organic markets, and Tex-Mex fare thats puts to death my fear that all American culinary institutions are marked by blandness and greasiness. It has taken almost two months for me to quell that fear.

I arrived in Austin on a Thursday evening, and Nazanin casually mentioned that there was a vegan hot dog eating contest on the Saturday. The stars and dates could not have aligned better. This was to be the centrepiece of my time in the capital, and the highlight of my foray through Texas.

What better crystallisation of the weirdness of Austin, then a vegan hot dog eating contest? A quintessential American idea - stuffing ones face with dogs - inverted and gone green, healthy, socially-responsible, maybe even ironic?!

The Austinites turned out in force, and they brought their tattoos with them. The hobo-punks were well represented, and one of them entered the doubles contest with his dog, who wolfed down six franks. the rocker kids were there and their star massacred 13 dogs, guzzled cloudy hot dog water and then threw up on stage. A plethora of photographers and film-makers stalked the crowd and filmed the guy in the super-hero get-up, who was disqualified for smuggling dogs. The vegan fire-fighters were invited as special guests. The hippies waited around and requested leftovers.

Having sniffed out a free meal, I entered into the singles contest, intending to polish off three dogs or so and then retire. But the roar of the clrowd and the mound of lukewarm dogs on the plate before me aroused something deeper. Can i say the spirit of Texas was on me?

one two three dogs slid down easily, and i knew i wasn't going to win, but couldn't very well walk away now. i had had my meal but there were another ten minutes on the clock. four and five and i was enjoying myself and hadn't forgotten to use my napkin or chew with my mouth closed. six and i had to adjust my posture somewhat and chew more thoroughly. seven and there was little point in stopping now with the time more than half gone, but the rock guy next to me swigging hot dog water made me a little queasy. eight and my stomach was hurting but the mouth and hands were unrelenting. nine and i wondered for the first time how such an act with gluttony fit with my vegetarian principles. nine and a half and i had forgotten principles and had my sights set on double digits. ten and i felt triumphant and very very bloated, but there were still some dogs on my plate, and the crowd was counting down. ten and a half and numbers became irrelevant and my stomach became the distressed centre of the universe. the countdown concluded. i was too tired to stand but too sore to sit. the winners were awarded and i smiled and wanted to sleep. the winners, both in the double and singles categories, were not the big-talkers or face-stuffers. they didn't throw up or look troubled. they received their prizes and disappeared into the colourful crowd.

The fullness passed and i would eat again. i had surprised and vindicated myself. I had crossed over and entered into the looking glass of Austin, found it to be weird but deeply pleasing. I had contradicted and surprised myself, and done so vibrantly and theatrically. And that i think was my most profoundly Texan moment, a mouth stuffed with ketchup and veggie-dog, not sure why i was doing what i was doing but determined to see it through to the end, to enjoy it and be proud of it.

How does any of that typify Texas? or Austin? It doesn't necessarily, but after all my time in Houston and in Austin i still feel confounded by the richness and weirdness of Texas, a land that conforms to its own myths at the same time that it flips them round or shatters them. I had hoped to glean some special insight in America by coming here. And while there were fleeting moments of apprehension, usually with a full mouth or belly, i think i only really began to skim the surface of an impossibly rich and diverse state, with enough  ingredients to constitute its own nation many times over.

the revolution is coming.. /news/2007/05/31/University/More-Veggie.Dogs.Than.Youd.Ever. Want-2910616.shtml
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