Day 12: My Favourite Place on Earth

The pep talk I gave myself last night seemed to have worked. I went down to breakfast and got talking to an Aussie guy named Mark, who’s just driven about 4,300km from Vancouver to Toronto. He didn’t go to uni until 24, instead choosing to travel for a while, and said he’d highly recommend me hitchhiking down to the West Coast. I considered it for a while but there’s no real need for me to risk doing so. I’ve now found lifts to a lot of the cities I’ll be travelling to in the next nine or so weeks. There’s always next time though!

Naturally, I went back to the dorm a lot more confident and thought “the guy in the bunk below me can’t be that bad”. He really wasn’t. Con (that was his name) was another Aussie, who lives in Melbourne and spent the last three weeks working at a summer camp in New Jersey. According to him, the best time to get work in Australia is over the summer i.e. from December to February and bar-work is best found in Melbourne and Brisbane – the bars all close at 12 in Sydney. He said to get in touch if I’m ever in Oz, something I will definitely do.

After signing up for a free walking tour of Georgetown, I worked on a blog post, before deciding to venture out and find some lunch. After walking down K-Street, the home of dozens of lobbying firms and therefore, arguably, the most significant street in the world, I passed rows of food trucks on Farragut Square. Street food tends to be cheap, right? Not in DC. In a city built largely for working professionals, prices are vastly inflated beyond what they would ordinarily be. At a farmer’s market I walked past, for instance, green juice was being sold at $11 a bottle. That’s fine if you’re on a six-figure salary and leave the city at the end of the working week. It’s not so good if you’re on minimum wage and stuck there full time. It’s easy to see that, for the majority, survival in a city where 8.6% of the population are said to be millionaires, would be tough. Basic economics says as much.

Walking past the frat houses of George Washington University which, for the record, were surprisingly small, I came across a Segway tour. Now, some cities just don’t seem suited to them but DC definitely is. Riding down the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument would be incredible on a hot day, or any day for that matter. As it’s such a compact city and the buildings retain heat well, it often feels much hotter than it actually is. It can be 26*C but feel like 30*C, which is more UAE than USA.

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At the end of Constitution Avenue is the Lincoln Memorial, the only building I’ve ever seen from a distance and unwittingly said “WOW”. It’s seriously impressive. Photos don’t do its size any justice and its design is quite simply timeless. It’s very hard to imagine that it was built hundreds of years ago. Surprisingly, there are no security checks when you enter and I do feel it’s lost its touch a tiny bit. It’s a self-declared temple to Lincoln and, for that reason, “Quiet, respect please” signs are dotted around, all of which are ignored by noisy tourists taking photos, of which I was, admittedly, one. In decades gone by, when the majority of people still had an emotional connection to slavery and to segregation, would this have been the case? Who knows? Either way, it got me thinking: has time detached us from the implications of Lincoln’s work?  As I sat on the steps outside, watching Russian kids slide down the polished marble as if it were a slide, it certainly felt so. Regardless, I was still struck by just how powerful and thought-inducing that monument is. I guess everyone takes to it differently but for me, it raised the question of “What will my legacy be?”. Lincoln was a champion of human liberty; what will I champion? What will I do with my life? I just sat there transfixed for about half an hour. I don’t know what I was thinking about; I just knew that getting up and leaving didn’t feel right. It’s the sort of place that movie characters go to in those scenes where they’re having their breakdown or re-evaluating their lives.

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I spent a very brief couple of minutes at the Washington Monument, so short in fact that I won’t pass judgement on it, and then rushed back to the hostel for the tour of Georgetown I’d signed up for. 40 minutes of brisk walking and a lot of sweat later I got through the door, just in time, and guess what? It was cancelled! How peak is that! I did have quite an experience in the time that I would have been on it though. A guy, baked out of his mind and, for some reason, wearing those antique welding goggles, walked in with his girlfriend. I got the impression they’d just been evicted so I spent about 10 minutes explaining how hostels work to them. I say to them: it was more to her; he was barely functioning.

Later on, I found some free macaroni in the kitchen. With a bit of sauce from a grocery store down the road, it made for a pretty cheap meal. One thing I noticed was that even though the big grocery stores have economies of scale, the smaller ones seem to charge lower prices. I guess Americans are just willing to accept higher prices if they can buy everything from one store, rather than shopping around? Maybe it’s wise to buy from Trader Joe’s and Walgreens though. Either the pasta was out of date or the sauce but, either way, I felt pretty grim after eating it. Or, maybe someone hadn’t bothered to wash the cutlery before me. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Anyway, I sat down and ate with a few people. They all had headphones in or were on their phones so no-one spoke but that was fine. As I said yesterday, I’ve realised that hostelling can be as social or unsocial as you want it to be. You can treat it like a hotel or like a commune and that’s something I was really learning to appreciate.

Day 10: 9 hours on a train

I ate leftovers and Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast this afternoon whilst listening to a podcast on Spotify: The Foreign Desk’s ‘Democracies and the monuments of their past’. It was a particularly fitting thing to listen to right now and put forward some pretty solid arguments, as you’d expect when the guest speakers are all historians. What was particularly interesting was the way in which it looked at the current situation here in America within a wider historical context i.e. by comparing it to the tearing down of statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein.
After eating my last meal of pad gra prow (Thai Basil Beef) that evening, I said goodbye to Greg and Hee Yeon and headed out the door. They were great hosts and I can’t thank them enough – it was the experience of meeting such kind strangers that led me to fully consider extending my trip. If they were horrible people, which they weren’t, then I’d have had second thoughts.
I walked to the T in the dark, not at all worried as by now I was accustomed to the route. My 7-day Metro pass had expired so I missed the train waiting at the platform by a matter of seconds whilst I paid for a single journey ticket. I probably could have run and caught it but by then I was sweating like mad simply from having a jumper on. I tend to travel in the heaviest clothes and boots I have in order to reduce the weight on my back but even at 8:30 at night, wearing more than 1 layer is foolish. Time was getting on and I began to worry about whether I’d make it to South Station on time – I’d spent about 4x my average daily spending on a non-refundable, non-transferable ticket so this train really wasn’t something I wanted to miss. It was all fine in the end though – I ended up with about 30 minutes to spare.

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After a disinterested Amtrak employee gave the briefest of glances to my ticket, I chose to get onto the ‘Quiet Carriage’. “I’m bound to get some sleep there, right,” I thought. “Not much but more than in other carriages”. Wrong. I got about 4 hours of fractured sleep that night, partly because I sat in the worst possible seat I could have found. It turns out that seats with the most leg room aren’t always the best places to sit on overnight trains. Seats in the middle of the carriage, where you’re not constantly being disturbed by people coming and going are. Regardless of where you sit though, none of the seats have blinds so it’s always a good idea to bring an eye-mask.
I finally got to sleep at about 12:30, as the train sat at the platform in New Haven (CT) for what seemed an age. An armed policeman walked through but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I later realised that we’d stopped to wait for a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. It seems this is always the case simply because freight companies own the railroads. I guess business has priority over people here…
To be continued… 

Day 9: 44% Sugar Chocolate

Here’s a thought: I don’t know anyone in a 3,000 mile radius. Sure, I know Greg and Hee Yeon but, apart from that, I’m completely on my own. It’s a weird thing to think about but it’s not really worrying me – whilst the people I trust are 5 time zones away, so too are the rumours and preconceptions that blight people’s first impressions of you. In that sense, it’s liberating.
As ever, I spent the morning working and catching up on blog posts in bed. Ideally, I would have booked bus tickets from D.C. to Philly a few weeks ago but, as it turns out, not doing so was a better option. It seems that if you book them on the day, or the day before, you save about £10, compared to the advance ticket price. I also signed up for Kindle Unlimited, in order to get unlimited access to the majority of Lonely Planet guides on my laptop. I somehow ended up with a 7-day free trial, no strings attached, and a subsequent 30-days for free when I actually subscribe. I’ve attached a link in case anyone’s interested.
I was just about to post Day 7 when Greg’s friends arrived for his ‘chocolate sub-group’, a sub-group being a group of Church friends who meet outside of services in order to strengthen their faith and sense of community. The thought of not hiding away in my room and the prospect of free food led me to put it on hold. As it happened, that turned out to be for the next 6 hours.
It was worth it though. Jace, the 8-month old baby of one of the couples there took what I think were his first steps. He seemed to love the sound that was made when I flicked my lower lip with my index finger – I wish I was that easily entertained. Another friend, who’s name I forget, was about to begin some post-doctoral work at Stanford. We had a nice chat about the importance of finding an academic discipline that interests you and then just seeing where your exploration of it takes you. That’s the approach I seem to be taking to choosing a degree – if a subject interests me on my travels, as US Politics is doing at the moment, it might be something I choose to look into studying later.
My blood sugar rose so high during those six hours that, at one stage, I felt nauseous and had to sit down for about half an hour. You don’t expect chocolate to knock you out like that but put it like this: a bar of Hershey’s (39g) contains 17g of pure sugar… Whilst my mouth was thanking me for shoving in truffles and cookies and chocolate covered strawberries, my body most definitely wasn’t.
During that time, I also realised just how much I’ve warmed to the American accent; I almost barely notice it now. I think my own accent’s become a tiny bit Americanised as well; it wouldn’t surprise me if I come home in a few months with a full on American twang. I guess we’ll see at Old Boys…