Tag Archives: Washington

The Natural History museum and a bit more Washington

The elephant in the room

Today we visited the Natural History Museum, with its foyer dominated by an elephant. Like its counterpart in New York, the way the exhibits are displayed is wonderful, showing creatures’ skeletons in the setting where they once lived before the climate changed. There was a minerology section and we saw the famous Hope diamond

Life and death

Crystals

The Hope diamond

Later we used Washington’s excellent train system to go to Crystal City, a shopping mall on the other side of town near the Pentagon. The trains are great – clean and fast. I was surprised at the lack of patronage but at least we had our choice of seats 😊

Washington’s subway

We wanted to experience a bit more of ordinary life in the city. For a start, we tried a Starbucks coffee. Sorry, Americans, both of us pronounced it horrible. We tried getting into Costco but the door guards wouldn’t let us even go in for a sticky-beak without a member’s card. So we went to Walmart instead. The store sold everything at often a fraction of the price we pay in Oz. But we didn’t see anybody who would have qualified as one of the Walmart people whose images are shared on the internet.

A 1950’s style diner

Then we strolled around the many levels of the mall filled with too many fashion shops (just like at home), bought lunch at a food court, and ended up in an electronics store, where Pete, who wouldn’t touch a Kindle with a barge pole, admired the Sony equivalent. The price was much less than we would have paid in Australia, so he bought one. That caused all sorts of problems back home when we tried to buy books for it. The system recognised the serial number as bought in America, but the American site wouldn’t let us buy books because we were in Australia. Sigh. This was 2011, remember. Since then, Sony and a number of other sites no longer sell books or dedicated readers and everybody (including Pete) uses a tablet to read.

There were a lot of uniforms in the mall – understandable with the Pentagon close by. There’s a diner there, too, the classic American model of the 1950’s. No waitresses on rollerblades, though.

The capitol building

The Washington monument

Ulysses S. Grant

Horses drag artillery in the Civil War

We caught the train back to the area around the Capitol building. It’s certainly an impressive pile of stone, kind of Roman in design. I expect that was deliberate. Then we headed into greener areas and admired a number of statues commemorating the Civil War, including General and later US President, Ulysses S. Grant. At the time work was underway preparing for an event which I suspect had to do with the Vietnam War. We noticed a couple of vets looking around.

Our last stop was at a stall near the museums that sold Tee shirts. I’d bought a Tee shirt in every country we visited and I acquired one with a bald eagle on the front. By that time the feet were starting to complain loudly. Looking back, we were eight years younger and a lot, lot fitter then.

Here are a couple of pictures of locals.

Tomorrow we would be heading for San Francisco, our last stop before the long flight home.

Aircraft, spaceships, nebulae – oh my

A model of the space station

On our first full day in Washigton we made a beeline for my bucket list item, the National Air and Space Museum. Ah me – spaceships, planets, nebulae, and aeroplanes. This museum has a comprehensive history of space travel and aviation. Some of the bigger pieces (eg Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber which dropped the first atom bomb) have been shifted to another site where larger aircraft can be displayed. No matter. I was more than happy to wander around in here for hours.

One of the Mars landers

The space shuttle ready to blast off

Me with a spacesuit

Many school groups were visiting, too. The displays are often hands-on so people can actually experience activities. For instance, you could climb into skylab and get an idea of what it was like. The lunar lander from 1969 was on display, as were several Russian space craft.

Inside Skylab

Even lunch was an experience. This would have to be the biggest Macdonald’s in the world, with about thirty or forty service lanes doling out burgers, fries, and shakes to hundreds of customers. I think there were other options apart from Macca’s but I’ve forgotten the details. The kids loved it, of course. And it was great to see groups of kids from every culture mixing together at the long tables. No segregation here.

The space museum naturally has a planetarium. We booked for an afternoon show that included a 3D fly through the Orion Nebula. To get a bit of fresh air before the session started, we walked out to an open-air modern art sculpture garden. I’ll admit I’m a Philistine when it comes to most modern art. This was no exception.

This isn’t art – it’s engineering

Okay, this qualifies as art

The planetarium presentation was breath-taking. We were given 3D glasses and it was just like being there in the middle of all that gas in a stellar nursery.

The mighty Orion nebula

Later in the day we went to see some of the more obvious touristy places like the White House, which was within walking distance. We did more than our ten thousand steps that day.

The white house

Secret? service

Working out the WIFI

Back at the hotel I set myself to working out how to get the WIFI to work while Pete rustled up some food. I’m wearing my Estonia Tee shirt – bought in Tallin earlier in our trip.

Washington – a capital city

The spectacular Washington railway station

Rather than subject ourselves to airline security for the short hop to Washington, we’d booked on a train from New York. But Amtrak runs trains that don’t carry luggage, and that was the only one with available seats in our time frame, so we had to send our suitcases on an earlier train. They would be waiting when we arrived. We checked out of our hotel and trundled our suitcases over the footpaths to the railway station. There’s nothing like the stubby little wheels on a suitcase to highlight every crack, every broken slab, and every bit of garbage on the way.  It was a lot harder than walking unimpeded. There was no way we were going to manhandle those bags down the stairs into the subway. There had to be a lift, which we found in due course. We checked the bags and waited for our train, watching the busyness that is the subway while we waited.

Pete and I boarded and went off searching for our seats which were printed on the tickets. We were having trouble working out the numbering system when I gentleman already seated took pity on us. “I’ve been catching this train for years,” he said. “Never has been any seat allocation.”

Well, that made it simpler. We picked a row and sat. When we’d booked in Australia we had picked a service which offered catering. That turned out to be a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Gee, thanks.

The train travels through a tunnel to get off the island, then heads south through New Jersey to Philadelphia, then Washington. We didn’t take pictures but our impressions were of rusting, abandoned factories, ramshackle neighbourhoods, crumbling infrastructure. Despair was almost palpable, an invisible miasma.  It was more the sort of vista we might have expected in a third world country. Outside the city the train rolled through parkland with housing estates further from the tracks, more the sort of thing we’d expect from America.

The line for a taxi at the airport. At least it’s under cover

After a brief stop at Philadelphia, the train went on to Washington, arriving early afternoon.But the excitement wasn’t over. For some reason the train couldn’t pull in to the station so we had to climb down and walk along the track, then climb up several flights of steps to get into the station proper. The third world analogy continues :).

In contrast the railway station (like many around the world) is magnificent, built of white stone with domes and arches. Our first job was to get hold of our luggage. We could see it, locked away in an area closed off with a locked gate. Getting hold of somebody to get it out for us took a while, but it did happen. Then we joined the end of the queue waiting for a taxi. That took a while, too.

We’d opted for a serviced apartment for our stay in the city, a place within walking distance of the museum precinct. Pete had booked and paid before we left Australia, so it was a bit disconcerting when the clerk told us we didn’t have a booking. The place was busy, with a lot of people wearing kippahs standing in the foyer. They were attending a Jewish-American event in the nearby convention centre and I expect our reservation got lost in the noise. Pete handed over his printed copy of our paid-for booking and eventually they found us an apartment. It was nice to have some room to spread out.

Our serviced apartment – glitzy but not great quality fittings

Then we needed to get some supplies so we could eat in. That would mean a supermarket. The clerk pointed us to a nearby shop, but that was just a convenience store, so we asked the customers and people passing in the street. After a few false starts we found a local who directed us to a real supermarket a few blocks away. We like going to stores in foreign (to us) places. It gives a feel for the ordinary lives of people who actually live here. A lot of the goods were just like home – but some weren’t. They had a great deli section. We stocked up with necessities and went to the checkout where the clerk asked us if we had a loyalty card. “no,” we said, “we’re only going to be here for a few days.”

“It’s cheaper if you’ve got one.” The girl pulled out a form for us, which we filled out.

It was really nice of her. In fact, most Americans we encountered were very nice, regardless of colour. On another occasion we asked a fellow where we could find a liquor store. He stopped, pulled out his cell phone and had a look for us online. It wasn’t easy, but he willingly gave us a good ten minutes of his time trying to help a couple of elderly tourists find a bottle of Scotch.

One thing we noticed about the neighbourhood where we stayed was the number of seemingly empty, abandoned buildings. Weird.

Abandoned buildings

We walked back to the hotel and rustled up a gourmet meal of spag boll and a salad. Then we headed off for a look around. It being a Sunday, the roads were pretty empty. In many respects the city reminded me of Australia’s capital, Canberra. Or maybe any city that was created to BE a capital. The architecture is very formal, with buildings dressed to impress. The feel is neo-classical with arches, domes, pillars, and formal statues. Not that Canberra has that sort of architecture – more than it’s as if it’s for show, to make an impression.

Lots of inspiring quotations everywhere

Washington’s archives office looks like a Roman building

Tomorrow we’d be off to the Smithsonian. I could hardly wait.