The Home Straight

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
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Trip End May 01, 2007


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When I left India back in November (that really feels like a long long time ago!), I quoted Churchill in my blog and commented that this was the end of the beginning. Well, now it's definitely the beginning of the end, as I visit my last country, the USA.

I've started off in Washington DC, and have been welcomed by the worst weather the place has seen in years. Cold, rain and winds have all conspired to leave me bedraggled and miserable as I stomp around the place. In fairness the main sights are all clustered around a relatively small area so on day one, before the worst of the weather kicked in I managed to wear out some more of my shoe leather to have a look at places such as The Capitol, Washington Monument and of course, The White House. Most of you know about my mild enjoyment of the West Wing TV series, so I was quite excited about actually seeing the place. Unfortunately with all the security in this town, you really can't get anywhere near it. Tourists group around a couple of fences for a few snatched shots of the building and seem to spend most of the time jostling for space with the inevitable protesters calling for George's head on a plate. Opposite one end of the White House is Lafayette Park, where protesters regularly held camps and rally's. Following 9/11 draconian laws were brought in restricting the right of protest - the Supreme Court ruled that anyone there before the laws were passed could stay and today, only one camp remains. As its resident is clearly barking mad and stinks, she doesn't seem to be doing her cause much good!

My first day also marked an auspicious day in US history, the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination (14 April). So, of I trooped to Ford's theatre, the scene of the shooting and saw a risible account of the events. But anyway, I saw the balcony, took the requisite picture and wandered off.

Day two brought some pretty shitty weather ( I was really pleased to see it was 26deg in London), so to cheer myself up I took myself of the Holocaust Museum. I'm about as cynical as the next man when it comes to the kitsch and general excessiveness of the US, but I have to say this museum is wonderfully done. To deal with such an emotive and powerful subject as the Holocaust takes some doing, yet the approach, simplistic at times, the organisers have taken brings a sense of realism and shocking impact that left me on the verge of tears on more than one occasion. I've obviously studied the events in details over the years and have visited other exhibitions and museums, yet this place seemed to effect me more than others. I don't know why, but it did. Two particular exhibits stand to mind  the first was a series of photographs about life in a Latvian village pre-war. At the end of the corridor, a simple sign stated that off the 1,500 or so Jews who'd been the subject of the study, only one girl of 15 survived. The second exhibit was even more stark and stunning. It's simply piles and piles of rotting shoes recovered from Auschwitz. At the end of the corridor numerous people were sitting down propped up by the walls, looking utterly shell-shocked. Prior to this corridor, the numerous kids on school trips had been loud and annoying - after the corridor you could hear a pin drop for the rest of the exhibition. It was that disturbing.

I'd always thought of the Smithsonian Museum as one rather large structure in Washington. I was surprised to find that it's made up of 6 different main sites in the centre and a few other outside. My main target was the Air and Space Museum, which it turns out, is the world's most popular museum, in terms of sheer visitor numbers. There are a number of quite remarkable exhibits there - the Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 command module perhaps being the two most famous, but amongst other exhibits, full-scale V1 and V2 rockets, numerous planes along with the world's first privately-funded spacecraft. All in all a worthy place to spend a few hours and to bring out the big kid in all of us (well, me anyway!) The Smithsonian's main building is also the Capital's strangest - a gothic-castle structure right in the middle of town. Looking rather out of place amongst the concrete government buildings and museums, it's certainly eye-catching!

My final visit for the capital was the Capitol Building, home of the US legislative branch - and quite an impressive structure it is too, though as the guide took pleasure in finding the Brits in the group, not the original one as we'd burnt that to the ground in the war of 1812 - apparently Blair apologised for that when he addressed Congress on his last visit - don't know why! The Chamber of the Senate is an odd little place - not nearly as big as one might imagine, the Senators sit at desks which closely resemble old-fashioned school-desks, right down to pencils and pens in the little trays at the front.

Of course, though, the main news while I've been here is the massacre at Virginia Tech, not that far from DC. Over 30 people were massacred by a sole gunmen yesterday and yet the nation doesn't seem to be in a that much of a state of shock about it. I was in the Smithsonian as the news started to come through and overhearing conversations then and over the past couple of days, the reaction seems to be more one of who to blame than shock and outrage that one might expect at home. More terrifying is the attitude to guns here - there seems to be a consensus emerging in the press and on TV that seems to be that gun control isn't working, so lets go the other way and let everyone carry a gun. The logic obviously being if the students had been armed the killer would have been "taken out" before he'd killed many of his victims! Of course, the alternative argument that if he hadn't been able to buy a gun over the counter at Wal-Mart, he might not have killed anyone, doesn't seem to be getting too much of an airing. It's actually frightening to see so many guns on the street here. Admittedly we're lucky in not having an armed police, but here in Washington (which obviously has a higher number of police than most cities), you see armed police and security guards on every corner. To be honest, it's not that surprising so many people are shot in this country. Judging by the size of most of the cops here, I doubt they are capable of running after a suspect, so just shoot them instead. Easier in the long term!

Fly down to New York shortly for a few days of retail therapy and meeting up with my parents again, before the absolute final leg in San Francisco and then, next Thursday, home..........
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