Washington DC, USA - A whiter shade of pale

Published: March 20th 2019
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Our American Airlines flight from Charlotte NC to Washington DC was scheduled to depart at 7.30 am. We were initially delayed because the cabin crew were still busy with an earlier flight they had done, but we were assured their plane had landed and they were now deboarding those passengers. We waiting passengers were told that we had too much cabin luggage for the plane to cope with and therefore those in boarding groups 8 and 9 would have to put their luggage in the hold. With a weight limit of 40 lbs for cabin luggage I wasn’t surprised there was a problem. I mean, who would choose to put their cases in the hold if you could legitimately carry them on board? We had no choice in the matter as we hadn’t seen our suitcases since San Francisco and I hoped they would reconnect with us at the carousel at the end of our journey. We were pleased to see the cabin crew arrive but we were then told the plane still couldn’t take off because the captain needed a certificate of airworthiness for the plane. That would be a good thing to have, yes? I was happy to remain firmly on the ground until the documentation was in the pilot’s hand.

Our flight was only 55 minutes long and was lovely, with spectacular views. We flew near Nashville, which lit up the night sky with an orange glow, I was rewarded for having my nose stuck to the window with the sight of a shooting star streaking across the sky, and I began to see snow on the ground the closer we got to our destination as day was breaking. There was a clear delineation on the fields and I could see which places had no snow and which needed to get the shovels out. We would have landed on time if we hadn’t had to circle above the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for ages before we could land. I spent the time looking for all those famous landmarks I’d seen on telly but couldn’t identify anything. We eventually landed at the snow covered airport and the lady who had been sitting beside a passenger with a rather smelly dog in a carrier at her feet was very pleased to do so. Of course, dogs are allowed on internal domestic flights, though I think there may be size restrictions, and all the airports provided toileting areas for the pets, which impressed me. The airports also made a point of acknowledging and welcoming military personnel, with banners and special facilities for them and their families. It was a nice touch, though perhaps too late for those who had returned from Vietnam all those years ago to a much cooler welcome home ... First impressions of the airport was that it was somewhat shabby, though we later moved in to an area with impressive vaulted ceilings which were more in keeping of my expectations of a city which was the seat of the American government.

It turned out our luggage had made the same journey as us – phew. Not only that, they were the first cases to appear on the carousel – that’s never happened to us before. We made our way to the pick-up point for the transport we had arranged to transfer us to our hotel and we were eventually collected after a short wait, as our delayed arrival had thrown the pick-up arrangements out of kilter. I spent the time chatting with other passengers and airport personnel and watching a scantily dressed woman with wanna-be-a-model attitude and attire (put some clothes on, woman, it’s freezing out there!) recall her driver because she had left the documentation for her dog in the car and the animal could not fly without it. Our transport eventually arrived and we had a somewhat wobbly journey into the city because the driver spent more time with his eyes on the satnav than on the road and we tended to drift a bit! Regardless, we were safely delivered to the River Inn Hotel where Cedric, who checked us in, told us that Room 103 was ready and waiting for us, even though we were well before check-in time. Hallelujah – I was ready for my bed! Cedric did the usual ‘where are you from/welcome to our city’ thing and asked why we were only staying for one night. We waffled a bit (we were moving to another hotel the next day and I didn’t feel comfortable telling him that) and he told us where the nearest shopping area was for us to get food. The room was stunning with everything a guest could need, including a kitchen area, and we could have easily and happily stayed there for the whole of our time in Washington but we had different plans. We decided to keep moving before our last reserves of energy gave out and we walked to the shopping area for food before returning to our hotel where I fell into bed and slept.

The next morning we decided to check-out of the hotel before catching a HOHO bus to see the sights. Fortunately, Cedric was not on duty and we were able to check-out with a receptionist who asked us no awkward questions before accepting our luggage into storage. The weather was fine, but very, very cold so we once again ‘layered up’ and I wore the gloves, scarf and hat I had kept at the bottom of the suitcase since they were last worn some months ago. We walked along to where we thought the HOHO bus stop was in the Foggy Bottom area where we were staying but managed to get it a bit wrong. It didn’t matter as it turned out because the HOHO driver pulled up for us in a layby, as he was running early and needed to waste some time. The two day tickets we bought cost us $59 each and we sat upstairs at the front of the bus, which was under cover and, thankfully, heated!

As always, we did the full circle to see the sights then decide which ones we wanted to revisit in more depth. The trip covered the White House, Washington Monument, city centre, Ford’s Theatre (the site of the assassination of President Lincoln and still operating as a theatre to this day), Willard Hotel, Bureau of Engraving and Holocaust Museum (a strange and somewhat unfortunate mix, it seemed to me, but hey ho), across the Potomac river to the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, Georgetown Harbour area (which had lots of old houses and canals), the National Mall and Reflecting Pool, Jefferson Memorial, memorials to Vietnam and Korean war veterans and the Lincoln memorial. These iconic sights were wonderful to see in reality, after having only seen them previously on the media, and the snowy surroundings complemented the (mainly white) buildings.

As usual, the commentary on the bus provided much background information. Washington is not in a state as the powers-that-be decided, way back, that if the national capital were to be located in one particular state it would be perceived to have more power than the others. Land was ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland and Washington DC grew on the banks of the Potomac River and a later law placed the entire district under the exclusive control of the federal government. Of course, the unanticipated downside of this decision is that those who now live in the federal district of Washington DC have no voting representation in the Senate, though it is permitted a (non-voting?) delegate in the House of Representatives (I hope I’ve got this right – it’s a bit confusing!). So, the residents of Washington DC ended up with less power than those living in the other states of America. As a result, residents see no benefit in paying taxes and many of the car registration plates bemoan that fact with ‘Taxation without Representation’ emblazoned on them instead of the usual home state. A sign in the centre updates itself every 30 seconds or so, indicating the amount of taxes residents have paid, without having a voice in government. Can’t say I blame them – I wouldn’t like it either!

The city is very picturesque and I really liked the differing styles of architecture. All the ‘significant’ buildings are imposing and grand (perhaps with the exception of the Pentagon, which I found a bit grey and sprawling), but mainly low-rise. No buildings higher than the width of the adjacent street, plus 20 feet, are allowed. A mix of styles includes modern, Georgian, gothic and neoclassical and I really liked it. The streets were clean and wide and, without high-rise buildings to block the views, seemed airy and open. Some construction was taking place but this was difficult and limited, given the restrictions. The city seemed affluent, though some homeless were camping on the streets in their tents where they must have been very cold indeed. I saw one chap lying across the vent from the underground metro system, taking advantage of the warm air rising up from there.

We returned to visit the area around the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The area was quite busy with other visiting tourists, TV camera crews, security personnel and lots of squirrels which seemed quite tame and not a bit bothered by all the fuss and bother going on around them in their park. Secret Service staff were busy on the roof of the White House and they had a big and obvious presence on the ground with armed staff and big vehicles emblazoned with their logo (so not so secret, then). Many cars pulled up to the side of the road and the drivers quickly nipped out to walk across to the White House for a look-see. One driver even left his window open and keys in the ignition so he was either foolhardy or the area was a crime-free zone! Visitors were able to move right up to the barriers to have their photo taken and a group of protesters had set up shop nearby 37 years previously and hadn’t moved on since, whatever the weather threw at them. The flag on top of the White House was flying high, but I didn’t know whether than meant the President was in residence or whether it was always there. I liked to think that the President was looking out at everyone from his office, particularly at the protesters asking for peace without dictatorship. We spent quite some time there, exploring the area we had seen so often on the TV, before catching the HOHO bus back to the River Inn Hotel where we had left our suitcases when we checked out that morning. Cedric was on reception duties again, but we managed to furtively retrieve our suitcases from the concierge without interacting with him and set off to relocate to our next hotel, three minutes’ walk away.

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