Washington, DC: Walking and words

It was raining heavily when I arrived in Washington, DC back in December.  I had just flown in from an equally wet New Orleans, where, at the boarding gate, I had gotten into conversation with an older man from Atlanta who supported Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency.  Sanders would have been my first choice too, so I enjoyed a half hour’s casual analysis and lamentation before the short flight to DCA.  I took a short taxi ride to the HI (Hostelling International) hostel where I was staying.  I stayed at another HI hostel in Los Angeles earlier last year, and I prefer them over other hostels.  They’re always clean, the facilities are excellent, and they’re alcohol free so there are no loud, drunk people running around.

I took to the dark, wet streets with my Doc Marten boots and umbrella in the late afternoon, and after a quick side trip past the White House (its pale columns magically lit up for Christmas), I trudged through the rain in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial.  As I plodded up the final marble stair of the memorial in the dark and stepped in out of the rain, I looked up.  The enormous, still, white marble figure of Abraham Lincoln loomed above me and every hair stood up on the back of my wet neck.  The majestic statue sat with the greatest composure , calmly looking out over his city and country, and the words engraved above his head read

In this temple

As in the hearts of the people

For whom he saved the Union

The memory of Abraham Lincoln

Is enshrined forever

His words engraved on the side walls speak eloquently of the horror of the civil war and the necessity of bringing it to a quick end, but also of the unacceptability of slavery and of the war as the last resort to end it.  He talks of all people being equal, and of the war being America’s punishment from God for years of slavery.  I was overwhelmed by the solemnity, dignity and decorum of the memorial, which is everything that a president should be, and threw into stark relief the tragedy of current events in American politics.

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Earlier that same evening I had ambled into White House Gifts, and the first thing I saw when I walked in the door nearly broke my heart: a whole stand full of t-shirts celebrating the upcoming inauguration of the ape that won the presidency, with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on all sorts of merchandise.

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The following day was beautiful, bright, dry, and freezing cold.  After a walk along the west end of the National Mall with its monuments and memorials, I detoured off the Mall to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum is a stark, harsh building of steel, glass and grey brick.  They skylight inside the entrance offers a narrow glimpse of blue sky, which Holocaust survivors have said reminds them of the sky above the death camps – the one thing that the Nazis couldn’t take from them.  The exhibits inside the museum were upsetting to say the least.  Having visited Berlin earlier in the year and seen the museums there, none of this was news to me, but every new detail is always a shock, particularly in the current global political climate where the far right is on the rise, emboldened by the man who was soon to take power in America.  The museum is strongly concerned with education about genocides around the world and touches on those in Sudan, Rwanda and Cambodia.  Its pamphlets and exhibits beseech us “Never Again”, but already the early warning signs are in place, and it’s terrifying to watch it happen in real-time.  Near the museum’s exit is a plaque dedicated to an African American police officer who was shot to death by a known white supremacist and Holocaust denier who attacked the museum in 2009.  The plaque poignantly explains that the officer was murdered while protecting the museum that seeks to confront the very hate that took his life.

The other museum that left a strong impression on me was the Museum of the Native American Indian.  This is located at the eastern end of the National Mall, and I would only recommend the full walk there from the Lincoln Memorial to those who are particularly fit and mobile.  DC is highly walkable, but distances are longer than they look, and my legs were in great pain after the full two miles with numerous detours along the way.  The exhibits here were interesting and informative.  One described the religious beliefs of Native American tribes and their beliefs on the origins of the Universe.  Another talked of treaties between the US and Natives through time.  Early treaties were mutually beneficial, but later the US exploited and abused the Natives to any degree possible.  Again, the reflection of current events appalled me – right at that moment Native Americans and supporters were protesting at Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota against an oil firm building a pipeline through their water supply.  Police and military were using brute force against protesters, many of whom were families with young children.  It seemed incredible to me that such abuses can continue when a whole museum exists that is dedicated to similar ones.  The exhibition here that interested me the most was that on the sovereign nation of Hawaii.  It told the story of how the US invaded Hawaii and overthrew its sitting government.  Hawaii still lives under its oppressor, despite President Bill Clinton’s apology in 1993.  It struck me that for a once-colonised nation, the US has perpetrated its own fair share of colonisation, and that we never ridicule it as we sometimes do the British Empire.  American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii are still living as territories of the US, and nothing of it is mentioned in most history books.  Perhaps only after the fall of an empire do we begin to see it for what it is.

The following brisk morning I was sitting on a bench at Dupont Circle, a residential suburb filled with New York-style brownstone houses, San Francisco-style turrets, and foreign embassies in ornate buildings.  I was reading my map and searching for the metro station, when I was approached by two girls of about 14 who asked to interview me for a school project.  I could see other teenagers with notepads approaching strangers in the same way.  They asked who I was and where I came from, why I came to DC, what I wanted to be when I was a child, and whether I liked Harry Potter.  One of the girls really lit up when I told them that I had wanted to be a journalist and that I loved Harry Potter.  Their project was to be journalists and she was loving it, and they took notes and my photo.

I had just come from Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, a famous bookstore that opens 24 hours on weekends and until 1am on weeknights, where I had spent two hours becoming inspired in the travel writing and graphic novel sections.  I bought a Bill Bryson book on travel in the United States, Lindy West’s feminist autobiography Shrill, a graphic novel about Palestine and a Lonely Planet travel writing guide.  I’m a huge bibliophile with a real appreciation for good bookstores, and this may be the best one I’ve visited, even including the wonderful and historic City Lights in San Francisco.  The adjacent Afterwords Cafe was the perfect place to relax with a green tea and leaf through my purchases.  This, followed immediately by my encounter with the two young reporters at Dupont Circle, ignited my desire to start writing again after a long hiatus.

After leaving the circle I got on the metro.  I feel that in order to really understand a city you have to navigate its public transport system.  I know the New York subway and the London underground very well, but found the Buenos Aires bus system less user-friendly.  The Berlin U-Bahn is very intuitive, and that day I found that the DC metro is too.  This took me to the US Capitol Building, the most iconic image of DC.  That afternoon was taken up with an hour-long tour of the Capitol (free, but pre-booking required).  This was one of the highlights of my visit to the city.  It was highly informative, enhanced my understanding of the US system of government, and also showed a number of beautiful, ornate and historically significant rooms.  Highlights included the painted ceiling of the towering rotunda, statues from each of the states, and the former Senate chamber.  The pomp and splendour of it all is outstanding, and I felt really close to where history and politics happen.

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My trip was rounded off with a journey across town on the metro to Foggy Bottom (and Americans laugh at British place names), where I walked past the famous Watergate complex to the Kennedy Center, a huge theatre with a number of different halls and stages.  Its Millennium Stage hosts free shows every evening at 6pm.  This one was a gospel brass band.  An ensemble of African American men played hymns and Christmas songs, tweaked to suit their brass instruments, occasionally joined on stage by gospel singers.  They were clear that they use their music to praise their god, but the positive, upbeat attitude and energy were infectious and many of the largely, but not entirely, African American crowd were up dancing.  This is probably the only time I’ve seen something fun and enjoyable with a sense of spirit come from Christianity – a welcome departure from the dourness and eternal punishment of Catholicism.

The music and its energy lifted me up as I reflected on the different cultures I had encountered over the past three days and the ways they interact with their societies.  I reflected on the governmental structures I had seen and the rejection of hatred and bigotry even as it occurs.  This city inspired me to consider current events in historical contexts, and to speak up instead of simply staring on in horror.  It stirred my dormant love of writing, and I came home and started a travel and politics blog.  Lets look forward to more of this.

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