We had now been in the United States of America for over a month, but I still felt like I knew nothing about the place. I’d had a taste of the American dream in LA and NYC, but who was running the show? Who called the shots here? It was time to head to America’s central nervous system – the brain of the country.
Soon enough, we had a bus ticket to Washington, DC, and I was on a mission to visit the president.
I was new to the United States, and I had a lot of questions. As the sun set outside my bus window, these questions stirred about my head while I watched the states of Delaware and Maryland zoom by from my seat. I needed answers, and mass media pointed to one person that could help me. His name was Barack Obama, and he was the boss of this giant country. He lived in a big white house in the middle of Washington DC (it looks like the house from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air – you can’t miss it), and he was quite often responding to queries from the nation. The polite thing to do would be to call ahead and let him know I was coming, but I figured it would be best to catch him off guard.
After four hours on the bus sitting next to girl that liked to text all her friends in ghetto-speak about “jonesing for a tuna melt, gurl”, Jessie and I finally arrived in Washington DC around 7pm in the evening. We couldn’t see much in the dark so we just headed to our hotel, avoiding many homeless people, and decided to get a good night’s sleep for the following day when I would be going to meet the president.
The next day, we woke up early and headed out to explore the city. Immediately we noticed that the buildings around central Washington DC were all big and grand, with thick stone columns and American flags waving proudly. There are also grassed squares with patriotic statues and monuments all throughout the city centre. Already we could see that this place was something important. Most of the people walking around were in suits, or they were homeless people, and I knew that given the location, either could have been secret agents. I kept a close eye on them.
Soon enough, we found ourselves standing outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave – the most famous address in the world, and home to the President of the United States. In a nutshell, the White House looks just like the house from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and has a big front yard with a fountain, and a bigger backyard with a garden and another fountain. In all honesty, I think the president could do better.
I was right on time for my unscheduled meeting with Barrack Obama, but things weren’t looking good. There was a man camped out in the square in front of the White House fence who seemed to really want to talk to the president about a mess in Afghanistan but wasn’t having any luck. In fact, the not-so-secret service agents had parked up with their cars (that were foolishly labelled ‘secret service’) and were telling the man to move on. I was separated from the White House by a large steel fence, and I had a feeling that the secret service were not about to tell me where I could find the doorbell. When I spotted the men with guns on the roof cautiously watching me through binoculars I decided it was time to give up. As it turned out, today was not the day for me to meet the president.
What we did get to do, however, was go into the White House Visitor’s Center. This was our first taste of the airport-like security measures around Washington’s tourist attractions (they’re at all the museums, too), but once we were in, we were glad. The visitor’s center is all about the history of the White House, and all the families that have lived there, including interesting facts about their personalities, pets, and things they changed in the house.
Back outside, after walking around the boundaries of the White House, we came to a huge park that joined onto an even bigger rectangular park known as the National Mall. The National Mall is a one mile stretch filled with war memorials and monuments, with the US Capitol Building on one end, and the Reflecting Pool that runs up to the Lincoln Memorial on the other end. In the middle, you will find the famous Washington Monument – the spikey obelisk that you can see from practically anywhere in the city, which is the largest stone structure in the world, built from 1848 to 1884. Upon closer inspection, we found that you can actually go up to the top of the monument, but tickets had sold out for the day so that would have to wait until tomorrow.
We walked along towards the Lincoln Memorial, passing a few solemn war memorials as we went, then we noticed something was not right. We should have been walking beside a long shallow pond known as the Reflecting Pool (as seen in Forrest Gump) but instead we found a long empty concrete reservoir behind a chain link fence. Coming to the end of the pool, we found a sign that explained that the pool had been emptied for cleaning and renovations, and would be opening again around a year later. The only thing I got to reflect on at the Reflecting Pool was that I didn’t get to experience it, and that made me sad.
However, our next stop was the Lincoln Memorial and that was just as grand as it ever was. Climbing the steps and entering the chamber through the large marble columns, you find the famous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln sitting in his giant seat with two of his most famous speeches inscribed onto the walls. Just outside overlooking the National Mall, you can find a plaque dedicated to the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood and made his speech, with the words “I have a dream” inscribed onto the ground.
Walking back towards the other end of the National Mall, we passed more war memorials, and these came in all different shapes and sizes, and varied so much in concept that they were almost like art pieces. While usually I find war memorials plain and boring, these ones had sculptures and murals and some were impressive on sheer size alone – the war memorials at the National Mall are definitely worth exploring.
Walking along the mall, we also passed a lot of people jogging by and more suave businessmen having discreet meetings on park benches. I swear, it was like we were walking along in a scene from a political thriller where people stand side by side when they talk, always looking forwards and never at each other. Cover-ups were definitely being discussed, and I regretted not wearing a wire.
I just have to add that it was this point that I got to touch a squirrel for the first time. I saw a bunch of them scurrying around some people begging for food scraps, so I went over, picked up a stone as decoy bait and lured one in. Soon enough, he was putting his little clawed paws on my hand and becoming overcome with disappointment as he realised I was offering him a stone. I walked away feeling enlightened for my direct contact animal experience, and he hurried away knowing he will never let down his guard and trust a damn human being ever again.
After quite a walk, we passed another less famous reflecting pool and reached the US Capitol Building at the other end of the National Mall. This building is sometimes confused with the White House but you can tell them apart because the US Capitol Building has a big dome on the top. Behind this, you can find the US Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, if you’re into all of that stuff.
After taking a few photos of the big impressive building, we headed along the National Mall again. The east half of the mall is also called museum mile due to having a lot of Smithsonian museums, and the best thing about them is that they all have free admission.
There’s the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Smithsonian Castle, which is like the Smithsonian Institution’s headquarters, and then there are tons of art museums, sculpture gardens and botanical gardens. But let’s move on to the good stuff – the more fascinating and exciting of the Washington museums.
We still felt new to America and we had a lot to learn so it only made sense that our first of the museums should be the National Museum of American History. It may sound boring because it has the word ‘history’ in it but when you think about all you know of America, you realise it’s anything but. Indeed, the first thing you’ll probably see is the original star-spangled banner exhibit (the first American flag, and I swear Americans almost cry when they see it) – which is huge and behind a glass wall with no photos allowed – but after that, you get to see the things you know and love. You’ll see Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, Michael Jackson’s fedora, and even Abraham Lincoln’s suit – including the top hat that he wore the night he was assassinated. Kermit the Frog is there, along with original Charlie Brown sketches! After you’ve got a good sense of American pop culture, you can move onto the heavier stuff, which has a bit about technological innovation but is mostly all about America at war.
This section actually taught me a lot about American history, as it takes you from the American Revolution, through the Civil War, then through World War II and Vietnam. It ends with the Iraqi War and even includes original steel girders from the Twin Towers. If you’ve got a bit of time, and you’re looking to learn about how Americans came to be, you should put this museum on your list.
Next, we decided to explore the National Museum of Natural History. We’d visited the natural Museum of Natural History in New York, which was a lot more impressive, but the one in New York wasn’t free – in fact, it was far from it. The Washington version has quite a few dinosaur skeletons, including a full triceratops skull, along with a few animal dioramas and an insect zoo full of creepy crawlies from all over the world. The big drawing point however, indicated by crowds alone, was the Hope Diamond, which was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. I went in with the idea of scoping out a plan for a heist, but later decided it wasn’t even worth it.
By the time we left this museum, it was getting late and our feet were sore so we decided to head back to our hotel. Besides, it was Oscar’s night – Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours was up for a few awards and I hadn’t seen it yet. We ordered the film on demand at the hotel, and watched it just in time. It wasn’t Boyle’s best, but it was very good for a movie about a guy who gets stuck under a rock.
The next morning, we were up early again and heading out towards the White House to meet with Mr President, but again we found ourselves blocked off by secret service police! After wandering around taking more photos while agents watched us from inside unmarked vans with black tinted windows. After a while, we heard that tours of the White House were available, but you had to register at least a month in advance through correspondence with your embassy. I was slowly coming to the realisation that I would not be meeting the president on this trip.
Before I could dwell on this sad revelation, though, we remembered we had to get over to the Washington Monument early before tickets ran out, so we rushed over to the National Mall. Upon arrival, we got two free tickets to go up the Monument in a couple of hours’ time and I was quickly forgetting about being stood up by Barrack. After a bit of wandering about, it was time to line up for the ticket check. Then it was time to line up for the security check. Finally, it was time to line up for the elevator. Inside the giant stone obelisk, you find many plaques inscribed with quotes by George Washington, along with a sculpture of the man himself. Once you compile into the elevator with a bunch of other tourists and their obnoxious kids, you zoom up to the top where you find large windows on each side of the monument (north, south, east and west) and maps to explain what you can see. The view up here is quite spectacular, although you do have to either wait patiently for people to move, or just shoulder them out of the way. Once you’re done, you just jump back on the elevator and on the way down it slows its descent so you can look out windows and see plaques on the interior walls from all the states that funded the construction. As it turns out, it was quite expensive to build huge stone towers in the 1800s.
When we got down, we spent a little more time wandering around the National Mall then decided to explore the last of the exciting museums (in our opinions) – the National Air and Space Museum. This one is dedicated to all things to do with flight and space exploration, from models of the Wright Brothers first working aircraft, to spitfires and fighter jets on a pretend aircraft carrier, all the way to rockets, space shuttles, moon landers and Mars rovers, with a few satellites and ballistic missiles thrown in there, too.
As a guy, I loved this place, and was extra happy when just before we left, we bought tickets to go on a fighter jet simulator and Jessie agreed to be my gunman – or gunwoman – even when she saw in advance that it goes upside down! So we hopped inside the capsule, with Jessie on the guns and myself as pilot on the controls. We spent a lot of time upside down, but when we stepped out, the lady told me that I had the day’s highest score by a long shot. I laughed, and she said ‘no, seriously!’ I was totally Top Gun.
By the time we left the Air and Space Museum, it was time to pick up our stuff from the hotel and head over to the bus station to catch our four hour ride home.
The other big things to do and see in Washington are Ford’s Theatre where honest Abe was assassinated, and the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, which are actually across the state line in neighbouring Virginia. Lucky for us, we got to visit them on our way back from a Virginia vacation a few months later. For the Pentagon, we just drove by because we couldn’t find a car park nearby and the security was intimidating, but the Arlington National Cemetery was much easier.
For this, you pay a few dollars for parking then just go wander the giant cemetery grounds. Here, you’ll see thousands and thousands of white crosses and tombstones, along with memorials to famous people such as John F. Kennedy (with plaques and an eternal flame burning). Seeing all the plain white crosses in such great numbers has a strange surreal effect that seems to reflect the absurdity of war, with so many people dying and becoming a symbol in a huge cemetery that has new additions all the time. You can also find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Memorial, where you’ll see the most solemn military guard you’ve ever come across pacing back and forth and swinging his rifle around.
We were lucky enough to witness the changing of the guard, where we were asked to be silent as another two guards came to make the switch. They were so disciplined that it was like watching inhuman robots performing a computer operation with absolute precision. It was difficult to imagine the guard that had just finished his shift going home to watch television or have a drink with his friends. I could just see him sipping a beer and then sparking and catching fire as he short-circuited. As we left, we passed a military funeral procession which showed us that the place was still a fully functioning cemetery. We also passed a big line of shuttle buses that take lazy tourists around the cemetery, which showed us that it’s also a tourist attraction. More insights and reflections on the absurdity of war and America.
Back on our bus trip to New York, the sun had set and I was staring out my window deep in thought. I was thinking about how I missed out on meeting the president, but at the same time I had learnt quite a bit about the history of America and its political struggle without even saying a word to the man in the hot seat. I still had a lot to discover, but the trip had definitely put me on the right track. Washington DC is a place draped in historical references and is where the decisions were made that would eventually make America what it is today. It would have been cooler to have heard it from Barrack Obama himself, but overall the trip was definitely a success. Besides, little did I know that months later, on a trip to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in New York City, I would bump into the president and his wife standing by a replica of the White House’s Oval Office. He was friendly, but he didn’t say much. I must admit, though, I didn’t say much either – I was quite nervous.
Around a week before the trip, Jessie and I bought Megabus tickets online for $25 each way from New York City to Washington DC, leaving around 2pm on Friday, the 25th of February and returning on Sunday two days later at 7pm. The bus was cheap but very unorganised, showing up an hour late and letting us on the bus an hour after that. It was so full when finally we got on board that we didn’t get to sit next to each other, and while the Wi-Fi was a plus, it only worked for half the journey there. On the way back, it was even worse, with the Wi-Fi not working at all, and there being such a long queue to get on the bus that we nearly missed out. It seems that despite the fact that the tickets have seat numbers and departure times, it’s still every man for himself. However, sometimes you get what you pay for, and if you book further in advance, Megabus journeys can cost as little as $1 a trip.
While in Washington DC, we chose to spend a little more (around $115 USD per night) to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn because we couldn’t find any other cheaper hotels that were walking distance to the city’s attractions. The hotel had a great location and was very nice and while we didn’t utilise the hotel’s restaurant or room service, we did order a movie through their interactive TV menu.