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Friday, December 14, 2018

Destinations - Washington DC (1998)

by Proloy Bagchi (writer), Idgah Hills, Bhopal, February 27, 2018

A travel write- up on Washington DC visited in 1998

I had to cancel our hotel booking in Washington as a very old friend working with the US Diplomatic and Commercial Service insisted that we stayed with him. We had decided to travel by train as so far we had travelled mostly by air and cars. Amtrak was to take us straight to Washington from Cary in North Carolina. Amtrak is the only government subsidized passenger railway transportation service in the US.

We were to catch a train leaving around noon. When our nephew took us to the station we were overcome by disappointment. There wasn’t a soul at the station and the building appeared to be locked. Unlike in India, there was no jostling crowd and no tea or snacks sellers. A wicket gate led us to the platform which too was empty as if all the trains had departed and none was expected. As we waited here for the train, it soon pulled in around the appointed time. As it came to a stop an official, presumably the guard, checked our tickets and took us to the carriage we were to travel in. We were the only ones to embark from Cary. The whole process would not have taken more than two minutes and was facilitated by the absence of crowds like in India. Obviously most people fly or take to the highways and very few travel by trains. The railways in the US are in competition with both, the highways and the airlines.

The train was not particularly fast and took around six hours to reach Washington, a distance of less than 300 miles. There was another surprise at Washington. I was looking for my friend on the platform but didn’t find him. Then I realized all the passengers were heading towards an exit point where all those who had come to receive people were there in a big lounge. As we were going across to exit the station I heard my name being called out over the public address system. That is how I got to meet my friend. In the US barring the passengers none is allowed in on platforms, a system that cannot, unfortunately, work in India. We facilitate non-passengers’ entry by providing for a platform ticket for them which was dirt cheap till only a few years ago. No wonder, crowds would jostle around for receiving or seeing-off their friends andtea and snacks establishments operate from the platform.

This was a very old friend of mine. We were in middle school together around late 1940s, then at the high school and were also in the college together though in different streams. He then did his engineering and made way to Germany, later to Canada and finally to the US. Living in Bathesda, a very likable suburb of Washington DC located within the State of Maryland, his house was on a hillside and was built along the incline. Very hospitable, we had a great reunion after many years.

Washington DC, the capital of the world’s most powerful country, is surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia both of which donated lands for creation of a national Capital District along the Potomac River. Normally known as “DC”, i.e, the District of Columbia, on which the US Congress has exclusive jurisdiction. The city is named after President George Washington and Columbia is said to be the poetic name of the US – hence Washington DC.

It is a city of monuments and beautiful parks along its several avenues with very pleasant vistas. Our first site was the Lincoln Memorial, the monument for my favourite American President. “The government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth”, that is what Lincoln said during his famous Gettysburg address. He was a democrat and a libertarian to the core though he could not usher in liberty and equality for a very large number of his countrymen who even then survived as slaves in some states.

The building is in the form of a Grecian structure which has inscribed on its walls the two great speeches by Lincoln including the one delivered at Gettysburg. This is one of the most visited National Monuments of the US and has been the site of many inspirational speeches including the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered just about a hundred years after Lincoln’s assassination. It was an elevating experience to tread the same piece of earth as these great Americans.

Probably the tallest of obelisks, the Washington Monument dominates the Mall in Washington. It commemorates George Washington, the first president of the country who was claimed to be “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. Standing at around 550 ft. it is virtually the symbol of the Capital. As we stood under the massive dome of the Capitol we could see the Washington Monument down the National Mall that ends up close to Arlington Cemetery in the West in the state of Virginia. It is a fabulous sight. Made of marble the Monument was thrown open in 1880s and is a great place for lolling around on the well-maintained grass.

The beautiful Capitol building is where the American legislature comprising the two houses of American Congress congregates and makes laws and also ensures checks on the all-powerful US President. Here is where the Presidents are sworn in by the chief justice of the US Supreme Court. The building was completed around 1800 and was used for some decades as a church. The houses of the Congress used to meet then in Philadelphia. We were impressed by the dome and the columns that supported the two wings. The dome was reported to have been patterned on Les Invalides of Paris, only it is supposed to be double its size. Since we could not access the two wings we missed the murals and other decorations in them and on the inside of the massive dome. Branded as a Neo-Classical structure, it is highly impressive with its colonnaded frontage and a dome adapted from Paris.

A few steps away from the Capitol building is the Supreme Court of USA, Again neo-classical structure which came up in the 1930s to provide for judges a dignified place of their own; otherwise they were earlier cramped up in the Capitol building where the needs of the Congress had outgrown the available space.

We could see two of the several Smithsonian Museums – the National Air and Space Museum and the Holocaust Museum. The latter was most impactful as the Museum covers the whole range of activities of Nazi Germany from beginning to end towards what they called “the final solution” – which in point of fact was extermination of Jews. Even the almost completely sealed box cars that were used to transport the Jews to the concentration camps have been put out as exhibits. It was a heart-rending experience. The Museum effectively uses the electronic medium to facilitate understanding of the exhibits.

Somehow or other we could not visit the Jefferson Memorial though we took a picture of it from across the Potomac Tidal Basin. Jefferson was one of the founding fathers of the country, drafter of the American Declaration of Independence. We did, however, visit the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial. This was of recent origin as it was thrown open only in 1995. It has a long wall of highly polished granite with photographic images. More interesting are perhaps the bigger than life-size what looked like metal statues of the fighting forces in full combat gear disperse in the park. A very impressive memorial for those who fought the War!

We had to again cross into Virginia to visit the famous Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac. The Cemetery was initially owned by a Confederate General and only later passed into the hands of the Unionists. The war-dead of all the wars are supposed to have been buried here. And, of course, President John F kennedy too was interred here where on the request of Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy, an eternal flame too burns. The whole place is steeped in history and is a somber place.

We also went and saw the ‘regulation’ sites like the White House and the Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts.. A clutch of people were seen outside the White House which only indicated the attraction it holds for visitors being the seat of the most powerful man in the world.



About the Writer

Pushing 80 I was born in Gwalior in Central India to parents who were educated in Calcutta, now Kolkata. My father did his master's in English in 1916. He was a professor of English in the then only college in Gwalior. After qualifying in the exams for entry in to central civil services I served the government of India for 34 years reaching the very top of the professional cadres of the Indian Postal Service. I also acted as consultant ion behalf of the Universal Postal Union in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Swaziland.
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