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 11: My Problem with D.C.

Sitting on an elevated railroad high above, looking down on New York’s grid system is, weirdly, similar to looking down on a model village. Cars drive the streets in slow motion and the pace of life seems to significantly slow down. It feels like a long time till the morning.
Like a lot of people, I believe that everything happens for a reason. As fate would have it, I woke up just as the train was rumbling through the city. Instantly, I knew where I was. It wasn’t just the skyline as I passed over the Hudson, it was something else. If you’re in New York, you know it. It has this aura I’ve never felt anywhere else; almost a magnetic attraction. I knew then that I’d be spending large chunks of my future there. I can’t explain it but a lot of people will know what I mean.
After all that, I soon went back to sleep. The noise and the lights and the constant flow of people walking up and down the carriage were fine, but each and every time we came into a station I woke up. I guess the g-Force of the train braking does that to you.
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It was raining when I got to D.C. Check in for the hostel I’d be staying at opened at 3pm. It was 7am and the majority of shops don’t open until 9. Great! At this point, I felt absolutely miserable. I was tired, I was hungry, I was soaked. I was also exposed to homelessness on levels I’ve never seen before in the Western world. In D.C., there seem to be beggars on every single corner of the city, almost all of whom are black. I looked very briefly into why homelessness is a race issue and was, unfortunately, not surprised by what I found. According to an article I read, a lot of it comes down to residential segregation, conscious or otherwise. In isolating black people in “areas that lack employment opportunities and services, and experience higher crime and poverty rates”, black homelessness was naturally allowed to rise to the levels present today. You go to D.C. to see the relics of American prosperity and yet are confronted by the reality of American poverty. Beside symbols of extravagance are symbols of inequality; besides monuments to freedom are testaments to dependence. For me, D.C. is a 68 square mile paradox.
Anyhow, I walked through the rain to the hostel, to put my bag in a locker and decide what I had the energy to go and do with my day. The National Museum of American History turned out to be the best bet: as a Smithsonian Museum, it’s free, and the wifi connection was good enough to allow me to upload a blog post. There’s a lot of information there, which is great when you’re feeling attentive, less so when your sleep-addled brain has the concentration span of a toddler on E -numbers. Regardless, the museum does have some really great artefacts that smaller, less reputable museums just don’t have access to. I can’t imagine seeing Duke Ellington’s keyboard or a lifejacket from the Titanic at my local history museum! I learnt an awful lot too. Take, for instance, the fact that in the Second World War, an American was more likely to be killed in the Merchant Navy than the regular Navy. Who would’ve thought?!
I spent about 2 hours killing time in their “Technology and Transportation” section and realised I’d not even scratched the surface. I’d seen maybe 4 of their 48 exhibits but left knowing that I could come back whenever I felt like it. I’m glad I went though – I could so easily have written off the day.
Still feeling rough, I bought some Hershey’s – it tastes like Easter Egg chocolate when you’ve eaten too much – and a pre-cooked meal at Wholefoods and then took the Metro back to McPherson Square, the closest station to the hostel. I chose to stay in a 10 man dorm as it was the cheapest available and I never once regretted it. I can’t speak for all rooms but the one I was in was U-shaped so it didn’t feel like people were packed in at all. Depending on where your bed is, it very much seems like you’re in a 6-man dorm. After checking in no problem (my provisional license proved to be a valid form of ID), I got up to my room, locked everything away, showered (they’re not communal)  and went down to work in the dining area.
As someone who’d been in a hostel, solo for the first time, for of all an hour, I was still very much in my shell and chose to sit on my own in a corner. That’s not to say that’s frowned upon though – one thing I found about hostelling is that you can be as quiet or as social as you like and no-one judges you for it. Some people are at the start of their trips and are looking to make friends; others are at the end and looking to get rid of them. Pietro, an old Italian guy who happened to be at the end of his plonked himself down next to me. He was flying to Baton Rouge the next day and had problems sorting his booking confirmation. I helped him to sort it out and that’s how we got talking. It really is that easy to get to know people. All I had to do was act like a decent human being.
There’s a ‘free pizza and social’ night every Tuesday and so soon after about 30 people swarmed into the kitchen in search of it. I wanted pizza but I was also too shy to go over and introduce myself to a bunch of perfect strangers. So, I sat in the corner procrastinating for about half an hour. “I’m gonna go over, I’m gonna go over. It won’t be that bad”. “Actually I’ll wait till some people have gone”. “Yeah, and a few more”. And on and on that went. I was the only person in the room not getting involved and boy did I feel lousy. In the end, I jumped ship completely and went down to watch TV with an Iraqi-American guy instead. He was a pretty sketchy, that’s all I’ll say.
That night, I went to bed early and thought long and hard about my current situation. I realised that I had every right to be nervous. I’m not a particularly extroverted person so why was it that I expected myself to dive into the thick of hostel life from the off and then beat myself up when I inevitably didn’t. Some people can easily do that, I couldn’t and that was fine. I realised then that the easiest thing to do is to talk to other solo travellers. Just sit down next to them and say “Hey, where are you from?”. It’s cliched, it’s overused but it works. And that’s how I met a lot of interesting people over the next couple of days.

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…