Monday, October 6, 2014

Washington D.C.: The campus of US politics, free museums & city biking!

It's our last trip to the East Coast!

I hereby conclude that the weather and I do not agree in this part of the States. Despite my best efforts to check the weather forecast, I am always caught by surprise. Short-sleeves for a chilly Boston; Long-sleeves for a baking Washington D.C.


Day 1 - It's all about the transport. And U.S. Capitol.

We left our apartment at unearthly hours to catch a 5.30am flight. Called for a uberX for the first time and was impressed that 'Carlos' appeared in his white Prius within 4 minutes. It was a free ride too - Panda had invited me to join uberX the day before, earning us a complimentary ride each.

Then, it was a grueling 5.5 hours flight across the country. I was ready to bounce off to the hotel and catch some snooze once we landed. Until Panda clarified that we didn't land in Reagan National Airport, the closest to downtown D.C.

We landed at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, 26 miles away!

Not having a rental car means we had to lug our luggage and our asses on the public transport. We found our way to the Washington Flyer Bus, which for $5 could get us to the Silver Line metro station, Wiehle-Reston East. Then, to reach the Union Station where our hotel was, we had to switch to the Red Line at Metro Centre (metro map here).

It wasn't fun pulling our bags through the human traffic. And we had to pay an extra $2.30 peak fare, in effect after midday on a Friday.

Thank God, the hotel was less than 10 minutes' walk to the U.S. Capitol. We could still catch a glimpse of this magnificent building, even though it was too late for a guided tour. The heart of American politics!

We suspected it would be too late to visit the museums at the National Mall, so we tried our luck at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The garden, one of the oldest in North America, is just across the street on the southwest end of the Capitol. 

Here, we experienced our first free admission, among all other museums and institutions in D.C. The garden is understandably compact, given that it's smacked in the middle of a busy district.  But I wasn't as impressed with the content as I was with the form - the building is pretty well-maintained for an almost 200-year-old structure. 

By the time we exited from the gardens, the sun has begun setting. The evening skies were, in fact, glowing with magnificent orange hues.

We hung around the Capitol Reflecting Pool for a while, soaking up the last bit of rays and views of the distant Washington Monument.

Before heading for dinner, we circled around the U.S. Capitol to check out other national landmarks. It was easy falling in love with D.C.'s architecture. Grandiose facades, centuries-old history. All withstood countless decades of weathering. 

The Library of Congress, on the southeast corner, is linked to the Capitol by an underground tunnel. Next to it, the U.S. Supreme Court.

But my favourite is still the Capitol. I felt as though I have experienced different seasons within a day.

We settled our dinner at a backstreet Japanese bistro called Momoyama. The food was well-prepared, but I thought the menu was pricier than that of California. I later read that prices have been jacked up under the new management. I'm guessing they already lost a handful of old regulars. The place was sadly empty during dinner time. Hopefully, they would do better with the lunch crowd!

Day 2 - Biking through Washington D.C.

We hopped on to the Capital Bikeshare programme for Day 2. For $7 a day, we could cycle around D.C. using a network of shared bikes. The first 30 minutes of bikeshare is free; usage beyond that is subject to additional charge. That sounded reasonable to us, as long as we make sure to dock the bikes before time's up. It should be easy peasy since they have stations all around.

So off we went!

First stop was something simple - McDonald's! We had download the Spotcycle App the night before, hoping it would be straightforward journey.

It turned out to be harder than we thought. Our impression of a user-friendly app interface is to simply key in the location or landmark, wait for the list of nearby docking stations, select the nearest one, then use the mobile map like a GPS to ride to the station.

But, no.

First, we have to find out the exact address of our destination. Then, we try to manually locate it on the mobile map. Next, we scroll the map to find the surrounding stations. Finally, we try to remember the route.

At least, the app does tell us how many docks or bikes are left at the respective stations.

And I guess if you are a local, you can easily decipher that 'Jefferson Dr & 14 St SW' means it's near the National Mall strip.

Anyhow, there's nowhere to place the phone on the bike, and I doubt it would be a good idea to squint into the tiny screen while riding. The next best thing was to hold on to my paper map, and try to recall when to make a turn.

That, I later learned, was not a smart idea either. The map flew out of my hand as I was riding on the road, and Panda had to back up to retrieve it while I kept an eye on the cars.


We succeeded in getting to McDonald's without hitting anyone, or getting ourselves run down by cars. We weren't supposed to be riding on sidewalks in downtown D.C., but I wasn't confident of riding with the traffic either. So, on some stretches, we got off to push our bikes.

We also got ourselves lost on some street corners. But all in all, we still made it within the 30 minutes. Yay!

We built up more confidence for our next stop - the National Mall. This strip, which has the Lincoln Memorial on the west and U.S. Capitol on the east, is home to 11 of the 19 Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries. Museum fans will be pleased to know that it is free admission for all Smithsonian museums in D.C.!

I ambitiously planned for two museums - National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of American History. I completely underestimated the amount of time we would spend. I should have known it would be hard to peel my curious mind away, before appreciating every exhibit, absorbing every word.

"Is that 36-foot giant squid specimen real?" "That's the reason why deers in the forest have different antlers from their desert cousins?" "Check out this Neanderthal cave!"

It was almost closing time, and I wasn't even half done with the museum.

By then, Panda had enough of museum visiting. We decided to hop back on the bikes to get him his daily Starbucks fix.

Unfortunately, because the National Mall is a hot tourist spot, bikes are in high demand. The first station ran out of bikes, and we had to walk some distance to the next one.

The other issue with bikeshare is that you really have to look out for the docking stations. Some are hidden behind shrubs and trees, like this one at 10th and E St NW. You can get a heart attack from trying to locate the stations, knowing that your 30-minute timer is ticking away.

After our coffee break, we rode past the Washington Monument towards the Lincoln Memorial. Despite all my complaints about bikeshare, it really cuts down walking time along the National Mall stretch. The monuments look close together on the map, but they are in fact quite a walk.

Lincoln Memorial was swarmed with tour groups when we arrived. Guides of every language and nationality were trying to keep their groups together amid the crowds. I think the French beat the others hands down with their eiffel tower umbrella. No wonder they are world no. 1 in style.

It was actually my second visit to the Lincoln Memorial, having come to the U.S. with my parents a decade ago. The last time I visited, I didn't bother reading his Gettysburg or second inaugural address inscribed on each side of the hall.

This time, it was different because I had read Lincoln (the book), and had a better background on the 16th U.S. President. This was the man who fought to protect the Union and emancipate slaves, although he didn't believe in full black equality. His political brilliance in those tumultuous times is much to be admired. 

I also didn't know that Martin Luther King had made his famous speech 'I have a Dream' on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Something stirred in my heart as I stood on the same spot as this civil rights giant, looking out at the crowd. It takes so much guts to stand up to injustice and fight for freedom.

Our last stop before dinner was the White House. For all the media-attention given to this iconic white building, it was a little underwhelming to see its meager size and plain architecture in real life. It seemed a little out of place with the rest of the government buildings in D.C.

We were also surprised to see that the residence of the First Family was not under heavy security, at least to the visitor's eyes. Unlike Singapore's own Istana, which has a huge expanse of lawn separating the gate and the building, the White House seemed too near, too exposed to outsiders. It is no wonder they have a history of intruders.

Since the bikeshare programme doesn't end till midnight, we decided to continue with our adventure. We headed further out for dinner at Sichuan Pavilion, along K St NW between 18th and 19th St. We had to wait a while for our table because the restaurant was full. But it was worth it. The food was SO GOOD. Even Panda, who doesn't normally enjoy spicy dishes, gobbled everything up.


After dinner, we rode along K St NW towards Chinatown. We had to dock our bikes near the National Portrait Gallery because that was the only station with spots left.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We saw an awesome show outside the gallery because of a private event. It was also right next to Verizon Center, answering Panda's prayer of checking out the basketball centers of U.S.

As it turns out, Chinatown was not what we expected. It's a modern, fusion version where shops like Urban Outfitters and Bath and Body Works were given Chinese explanations: 男女服裝 or 浴室家庭用品. Chinese restaurants, typical of Chinatowns, were tucked away in quieter corners or lost somewhere between the Italian, Spanish and Mexican chains: 西班牙餐廳 (for La Tasca) or 齊波特蕾墨西哥烤肉館 (for Chipotle). 

I found it quite amusing but I wasn't complaining. The area was rather clean and the atmosphere upbeat, unlike other Chinatowns. We felt like we were walking along Causeway Bay in Hong Kong under all those neon lights. The night was still young. 

We strolled around a while more, enjoying the evening breeze. Then, we rode back to the hotel and docked our bikes for the last time, with much reluctance. Panda said we should have paid for the 3-day membership at $15 instead, since we enjoyed riding the bikes so much.

Well, everything should have been done better in retrospect.

Too bad!

Day 3 - Georgetown, The Boomer's List at Newseum

My friend from the French Club strongly encouraged me to check out the pretty neighbourhood of Georgetown, so we hopped on the DC Circulator for a 45-minute ride. The ride was extremely cheap at $1 per pax, and stops were clearly marked out in the flyer found on the bus.

I had great hopes for Georgetown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in D.C. A highly anticipated item on my checklist is a boat ride down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on a replica of an 1800s canal boat, drawn by mules.

The C&O canal was an important highway for commerce back then. Even in the dead of the night, skilled workers had to respond to requests to operate the locks and guide the trade boats safely through.

But HORROR OF HORRORS! My eyes grew wide in disbelief, my hands flew up to cup my mouth when I saw this sign outside the closed Visitor Centre:

After 29 years of service on the C&O Canal, the canal boat Georgetown has been decommissioned due to structural problems that have rendered it unsafe. It has been determined that the vessel cannot be repaired, and it is unclear when or if a replacement can be procured. For the most up-to-date information on the future of Ranger-led public boat rides on the Georgetown level of the C&O Canal, please contact Park Headquarters at 301-739-4200.

I knew something was amiss when the NPS site only mentioned Great Falls and Williamsport for canal boat rides. 

I knew I should have called the day before, instead of being absorbed in my La La Land of City Cycling.

I was crushed! 


With heavy hearts, we continued walking along the trail leading to the burial place of the Georgetown Canal Boat. Colourful houses, blossoming flowers lined the pathway. I thought they looked disrespectfully cheerful. 

And signage that speak of the past now read like an eulogy.

Then, at last, I saw her. As still as a log. Laying in a static water body that has begun to rot and smell. Moulds and weeds have started to grow.

It was devastating to see that for all that she symbolised, being an inherent part of Georgetown's heritage, what now surrounds her are decaying leaves and aluminum cans. Nothing to accompany her on the last days. No glorious casket.

It was painful witnessing her state of being.

I later found out, with some relief, that the town's CEO for business improvement Joe Sternlieb spoke of raising money to restore the boat. For the sake of residents and tourists alike, I hope he gets her back in shape soon. 

Poor dame. 

The tone was set for the rest of our Georgetown visit. Denied access to the most iconic activity, everything else, including the picturesque streets, failed to impress me. 

Even the Old Stone House, the oldest building in D.C., could do little to lift my mood. 

It was not until we returned to downtown D.C. that the grey cloud was lifted. We were going to check out Newseum, an institution dedicated to news and journalism. The mere concept of such a museum excites me, since I am always intrigued by how speedy and meaty (or juicy, depending on how you see it) the American news scene is. 

Newseum is also one of the few museums in D.C. that require an entrance fee. We had missed the free admission on Museum Day, but I was more than willing to pay $21.95 to avoid the line and explore the museum at my own pace. I got a small discount with my college student card. Best of all, tickets are good for re-entry the next day. 

We followed the suggested itinerary to start from the basement, head to the top floor, then move down from there. At the basement, visitors are encouraged to sit through a 'orientation video' to know what to expect from the museum. Then, you can choose to go to the next theatre to watch the award-winning video, 'What's News?'

Of course, I went. I was hanging onto every word. But when the lights came on and I turned to Panda to discuss the video, I found him sitting snug in his chair and nodding off. 

Women are from Venus; Men are from sleep inducing air-con rooms. 

Ok, I got it.

Right outside the theatre is the Berlin Wall Gallery. I have never visited Germany, let alone Berlin. Hence, I enthusiastically took up the invitation to touch the Berlin Wall. Literally touched/pushed the boundaries. 

Or maybe a little too enthusiastically. I later realised the invitation only extends to a small piece under the explanatory signage, separate from the giant panels. We are, in fact, not supposed to be touching those. 


Newseum was also showcasing 'The Boomers List' by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. I was looking for a topic to review for my Stanford online course, and I thought this make an interesting subject. 

Photographer and film-maker Greenfield-Sanders interviewed 19 trailblazing baby boomers in fields spanning astronomy to art to entertainment to science to technology etc. There's a timeline indicating concurrent events and milestones; also, a corner where you can smell the (rather strong) scents of the generation - baby powder, fresh-cut grass, incense. 

The exhibition was not mind-blowing. But I was challenged to reflect on my own self-absorbed generation. If only we are as bold, as perceptive, as valiant.

I wasn't done with the basement yet, but Newseum was almost closing and they were screening the last 4D show for the day.

We joined the line for 'I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure', going centuries back to look at how journalists helped record and shape history. I thought the 4D effect was weak, but Panda did squeal when Nellie Bly flung a rat at us.

After the show, we made a quick stop at the 6th floor. Up on the terrence, we had splendid views of Pennsylvania Avenue, also known as 'America's Main Street'. This road connects the U.S. Capitol to the White House, and is the place for official parades, processions, and major demonstrations. It's easy imagining protesters waving placards and shouting slogans as they march on.

I planned to pay a visit to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Memorial, and Franklin Roosevelt Memorial at the Tidal Basin after the Newseum closed. But I totally misjudged the distance. Without a bike, my wobbly legs refused to walk further. 

We gave up somewhere around the Washington Monument. Rested on a bench and watched two squirrels fighting each another.

Since it was our last trip to the East Coast, Panda requested for Shake Shack for dinner. We walked back to the outlet near the Spy Museum. The good thing was, there was no line and no crowd.

The bad thing was, we only shared a burger and fries between the two of us. 

What were we thinking?

Day 4 - Capitol Tour, Newscasting at Newseum

On our last day, we joined the much anticipated U.S. Capitol tour. We had booked our tickets in advance, and we didn't have to wait long in line.

The tour was very well-organised. We were shown a 13-minute film on the country's fight for democracy, then led on a walk through the building to the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the National Statuary Hall (former hall for the House of Representatives).

I was most impressed with the last stop, National Statuary Hall. Besides pointing out the 100 statues - two from each states, the guide showed us the 'whisper spot'. We could hear every word she said, even though she was speaking in a normal voice halfway across the room.

Oh, we even saw past representatives' desk locations imprinted on the floor. How cool.

The tour ended within 45 minutes - perhaps everyone was feeling groggily in the morning and hence didn't have any questions. We could have continued on and visited the House or Senate galleries, but it was too much of a trouble to get a pass from the senators or representatives' offices. 

So it was bye bye, U.S. Capitol!

We still had about an hour or so before heading off to the airport, so we went back to the Newseum to check out the rest of the exhibitions.

Miraculously, I was able to visit all galleries save for the ones with lengthy videos, thanks to Panda. Every time I go, "Woah!! They have everyday front page news from all 50 states and around the world?" and "This is so sad, he got killed for reporting this!" Panda raised his eyebrows in a you-only-have-a-few-minutes-left look.

In the end, I raced from one hall to another, speed-reading everything.

Best of all, I had a go at the NBC News Interactive Newsroom. There was no line on that quiet Monday morning. I could do reports after reports on the weather, the White House, the Capitol, the Newseum following the teleprompter, then see my own 'reporting' from a TV screen. 

It was a fun but nerve-racking experience. Even with only Panda and the Newseum staff around, I felt highly self-conscious and unnatural. I concluded that those who could step in front of a camera AND keep their calm are supernatural beings. It's no easy feat!

After that, it was a mad rush back to the hotel to clean up before catching the train at Union Station.

Washington D.C. is such an information-heavy, activities-laden place. My head was still spinning when we boarded the plane.

Panda asked if I would like to come back to D.C. again. It seemed to be my ritual - this need to return to everywhere I visited.

I was thinking, how nice if we could get a job or a posting here in future.

In that way, we can have all the time to explore every nook and cranny!

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