Sunday, August 30, 2015

Our Nation's Capital

I took a short trip to Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, DC for work last week. It had been a few years since I visited this nation's capital, and I want more!! The DC monuments and museums close down pretty early, and the 50 minute ride into DC didn't leave much time to explore. The hotel, Crowne Plaza, curiously (apparently no staff has taken this tour) recommended a rather no frills, "Sanford and Son" styled tour (as one of my colleagues remarked) where you're picked you up in a beat-up conversion van by a rather talkative gentleman, who drives you to the "coach," that really wasn't a coach. It looked something like this:

It was a mini-bus that had seen better days. The weather was quite warm and humid, and the air conditioner on-board felt more a swamp cooler cool than dry crisp, filtered air, that is so needed in the near 100% humidity.  Our tour guide, Ali, was tall, dour, and taciturn until he began the introduction on what a fun-filled tour we were in store for.  He didn't really speak until the wheels were rolling and he was driving.  I rode along with 4 other colleagues, three of whom, I did not know, but by the end, felt like I had known them for at least a few weeks. Once we were underway, Ali would not shut up! His rapid fire regurgitation of the history of DC was at first, impressive, but soon the almost robotic sing-song drone left me just tuning him out. My colleagues confirmed that some of his facts were not accurate. I interrupted him in mid-sentence to ask a question, and like a recording, he picked up exactly where he left off. This was a hop on, hop off tour of sorts. But soon, we found ourselves synchronizing our watches to Ali's so that we could be back at the bus by his proscribed departure time.  It was little scary... As all good tactical teams are formed, an official time keeper emerged in our group, as well as an orienteering advisor/enforcer, when there were multiple monuments to visit. We literally were giving each other two-minute warnings when we lingered too long. This was more of a boot camp tour, where the object was to burn as many calories as possible.  So much for a relaxing evening.  It reminded me of supermarket sweep when you're trying to get to the register.  We were running through sites like it was the end of the world to get our photos taken and history lessons learned in the time Ali allowed.  Ali would be a good drill sergeant.  He even us told the order in which to visit the Korean, Vietnam, and Lincoln Memorials in the 23 minutes he allowed.  When someone tried to deviate, we quickly reminded each other that, "Ali said..."  Amazing how much power he had gained within 15 minutes of meeting us.  Did I mention we were in DC in August?  Steamy!  Good thing we had that quick margarita before we were picked up.

Even though Ali's tour wasn't the best, it was a really fun time.  What do you want for $39? A taxi ride would have cost more! With all its deficiencies, Ali's directives, which I obviously made sound much more dramatic than it really was, well, not really, it made us all belly laugh and bond at every monument. It was a good time, and while I wouldn't recommend this tour to anyone, I would recommend taking a night tour, even if you've already visited these monuments during the day. The lighting on some of the monuments makes it challenging for iPhone photography, but I brought along my smaller, trusty and phenomenal Canon G16, and was able to get some good night shots.  Nighttime in DC is amazing!!  Imagine Arlington cemetery with only the van lights casting subdued illumination.  Magic!

The monuments are amazingly pristine and well-visited at night. The marble at the Jefferson memorial (apparently has its own history) is gorgeous. Like the moon, the Washington Monument is beautifully ever-present in the background. The Iwo Jima site really shows the artist's mastery of detail.  It was powerful.  The Korean and Vietnam memorials were somber and funereal.   The names.  The cast images at the Korean memorial were eerily real.  It was dark, and my camera's flash illumination reminded me of the battleground.  In that instant, a soldier in combat appeared right as he would have in the rapid flash of battle.

I came away really loving my whirlwind visit to DC. The city seems very different from the last time I visited, and it makes me want to return to see the DC slow side. Another evening, I went to the U Street district to meet a friend for dinner at Dukem, an Ethiopian restaurant. I loved the food and the vibe of the neighborhood. People seem friendly and willing to stop and give you directions.

There's simply not enough time on a business trip!!

Personally, I think every American school child should have an opportunity to visit our country's capital, gratis. The area is so rich with history!! The Smithsonian, the monuments, and the White House are amazing places to visit. How can one know what it means to be an American, if one doesn't understand our government, how it works, and what it looks like.  When I say visit, I don't mean a somewhat superficial photo-taking tour, but an in-depth visit to Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court.  Every child should go.

I know that I have been an advocate for going West, but DC is definitely must-see destination that is easily accessible. Flying into Reagan National is a breeze, and the subway is clean, safe, and efficient.    For older visitors, the restaurant and nightlife scene is great.  I'm thinking a short trip is in order in the coming months.

Remember, that DC is as sexy at night as Paris!