Friday, January 25, 2013

My visit to The United States Capitol...

When we arrived in Washington DC, all I (we) had planned was to get a view of the U.S. Capitol building from the outside.  As by the time we had our visa approved, it was too late to make an appointment for an inside visit (so I thought). By sheer luck, we met an elderly couple at the National Mall. I was over the moon when the man (husband) told us we could go inside. It is the Capitol Visitor Center. However, we would need to make an appointment. 'It can be done online' was what the man said. He was so kind, too kind. On the spot, he used his phone to check out the website for us. (Click here)  We had no idea that only a day's notice was required. We could not thank them enough.
We did as stated on the website. It did not take long for us to book the appointment. The reply/confirmation was almost immediate. As required, we had the confirmation email printed out and brought it along the next day. We had to throw away our water bottle and food. Food and water, they are strictly not allowed inside the U.S. Capitol Building. There were security/guards at the entrance of the Visitor Center. Once we passed them and entered into the building, there is a security check for sharp items, etc. We had our bags scanned (through a machine) something like at the airport. The only difference was we did not have to take off our shoes. After the security check, we were on our own. There was no one around to guide us further. I would say this…the staff were not that friendly. 
The information desk to get the visitor pass
We stood around not knowing what to do. Lingered for a while and then decided to walk through the door out of the security area. Husband decided to follow his instinct and walked down the stairs leading down to the Emancipation Hall. There were quite a number of people downstairs. There was already a line of visitors queuing. We hastened to the information desk (picture above) and asked about our appointment. It was already past our scheduled time. Yes, it was the right place. The man and woman sitting at the desk were extremely polite and helpful. After looking at our confirmation paper, the man gave us two stickers to paste on our clothing--the tour pass. He then lead us to the place where we were to queue then told us we had about 15 minutes before the tour start. 
King Kamehameha I (1758?-1812)
Sakakawea (1788?-1812)
Helen Keller (1880-1968)
The Statue of Freedom-
The original plaster model for the bronze Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome
John L. "Jack" Swigert, Jr. (1931-1982)
The tour started with a short movie on the history of the U.S. Capitol. (No photography inside the theatre.) We had a female guide who took us around and explained each section as we moved along. We were allowed to take photographs as we followed the guide. We had no complaints but I felt the guide could have spoken slower and given us some time to take more pictures. She moved too briskly from one chamber to the next. A few of us were still clicking away only to discover the group had moved.
Picture above and below-The Old Supreme Court Chamber (1810-1860)
The Old Supreme Court  Chamber (1810-1860)
View of the Ceiling
 as we walked out of the Old Supreme Court Chamber
The Crypt
The Crypt is located on the first floor of the U.S. Capitol. There are more details on the web. I think the web gives a better explanation than yours truly.  One of the sites I visited was Explore the Capitol Hill to read up more before our visit. The guide who took us around informed that she would give us ample time for picture taking. (I thought she behaved agitated seeing everyone 'clicking' away). Hence, everyone behaved and obediently listened each time she talked and followed each time she walked.
The star in the center of the floor denotes the point from which the streets in Washington are laid out and numbered.
The Old Senate Chamber
The Old Senate Chamber
Hubby took only two photographs, as the guide told us she would allocate us time for picture taking after her explanation.  She said the same thing when we were at the Old Senate Chamber. Therefore, hubby stopped and listened. In fact, many of us in the group stopped. After each section, the guide would lead and we followed. After the Rotunda, it was all the way down and back to the Emancipation Hall. It was 'a journey of no return'. Seriously, we could not go back and take pictures of the Rotunda, the Crypt, and etcetera. I was so disappointed with the guide. This is quite a good link to get an inside view of the U.S. Capitol and the Rotunda.
The U.S. Capitol Dome-skylight view
The Senate and House Galleries are also open to visitors. We visited the House of Representatives as it was in session. (Both galleries are open to visitors whenever either body is in session.) To enter the gallery, we had to go through a coat check (security) where cameras, hand phones and backpacks are kept by the security. Then, a number tag is issued for later claim of the items.   I could never imagine that I would be sitting in the House of Representatives of the United States. It was a short session but it was a good experience. 
Entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center
The wonderful thing about the whole visit to the U.S.Capitol was not just 'being able to get inside'. Another plus thing...Entrance is free. Makes me wonder why our tour agencies back home do not organise tours for this visit. **The Galleries are not included in the tour of the U.S. Capitol.  Passes are required. They may be obtained at the House and Senate Appointment Desks on the upper level for international visitors like us (non-US citizens).*Pictures of The Capitol at night. Click

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More in Washington DC...

We passed by a colourful house with creative garden display, daily on our way to the subway station. I loved the creativity of the owner. I have never seen a more interesting garden piece and paintwork. I had wanted to take a picture with the owner of the house but no one ever came outside (whenever we passed by). 
There are many tourist places to visit in Washington DC and both of us wanted to visit as many as we could. Our day (on that particular day) started with Pentagon. From Columbia Heights subway station, we disembarked at Pentagon station. There are buses that ply this route too but husband has a phobia of buses (just joking). We never use bus as a mode of transport as my husband told me we might get off at the wrong bus stop. It is unlike New York City where the buses go to one point--Port Authority Station. The subway is the easiest and cheap mode of transport. We use a daily pass, which cost US$14 for unlimited travel. There are others (click) but husband worked out the cost and for the duration of our stay, the daily pass was what we needed. 
I had no idea there was a Pentagon Memorial until we arrived in Washington DC. This is an open area and is open to the public with no entrance fee. I know little of the memorial and I think Wikipedia has more than I know. What I know is…There is a restroom for both sexes. I must say I am impressed that a public facility like the restrooms was generally clean (when I used it). That goes to show the mentality of the citizens. 
Husband was only able to take a picture of the Pentagon from afar. There were signs indicating no photography after we entered the vicinity of the Pentagon through a security checkpoint. However, it was a different directive around the memorial area.
The walk to the memorial was without any form of shade from the exit point of the subway to the memorial.  I saw many army personnel in their army uniforms. I wanted so much to take a picture (not allowed in that area).  It was quite a distance to walk and public transport are not allowed inside. There is no shade in any form and the sun was shining. By the time, we reached the memorial site I was hot and all flushed up and it is winter.
Pentagon Memorial
From the Pentagon memorial, we took the Metro at Pentagon station to Arlington Cemetery station. It was quite a distance to walk to the cemetery. 
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee memorial (up on the hill)
Arlington National Cemetery
View from the hill inside Arlington National Cemetery
Graves of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Family (notice the Eternal Flame)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I spotted Lincoln Memorial at the very far end of the road. We will visit it before we leave Washington DC.  I have enough of walking for the day..:o)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Washington DC...

We were ready to leave for the train station at sunrise. From Union City, New Jersey we took a bus to the Port Authority Station, then walked to Pennsylvania Station. The walk was not as bad as I had expected as it was cooling and the streets we walked were not crowded.
Inside Pennsylvania Station
We were early by about two and a half hours.  Since we were not sure of what to expect, husband felt it would be better if we arrived early. The station is very clean and organised. A board showed the train schedule and platforms. There is more than one platform at Pennsylvania Station so we need to check the board for information. As our train schedule was not yet on the board, we proceeded to the waiting area. I was so tired. New York City had burnt me out. I decided to take a nap after taking two pictures. 
I was jolted from my sleep by my husband shaking my shoulder roughly. "Wake up and hurry or we will miss the train", said the exasperated man. We hurried down the escalator and were able to join the last few passengers. A check told me they were all boarding the same train as us. We were in time. What happened was, the schedule board showed only New York to Charleston. Husband had been walking around the area waiting for Washington DC to appear on the board. As the time neared the departure time, he was worried and decided to check with the information counter. Only then, did he realise that Charleston was on the board about an hour since we arrived and the train was leaving soon. Charleston was the last stop and we, being non-Americans (also non-train commuters back home) did not know that Washington DC would not appear on the train schedule. We booked our tickets online through the Amtrak website. The timetable showed that the train stops at Washington DC. Naturally, we thought it would appear on the board. So if you are taking the Amtrak train like us, do take note of the last stop. Do not be ignorant like us. 
The journey from Pennsylvania Station to Union Station, Washington DC took 3 hours 30 minutes and cost us US$98 per person. The journey was smooth and the coach we sat in was clean. The restroom also deserved some mention. It was reasonably clean with paper towels and toilet rolls inside. It was something I do not find on trains back home. 
The first thing that caught my attention as I walked into the arrival hall was the number of blacks. It was something I had not expected and I was surprised. Initially, I was rather worried not because I am a racist but due to a bad experience. I chose a spot in front of the shoeshine ‘stall’ to wait whilst hubby go in search of a telephone booth. It was fascinating for me watching the shoeshine men go about their work; something I had not seen in this manner. The waiting time was long and I squat, got up and squat. I think that must have caught the attention of the security personnel, a black woman. She walked right up to me and said "Ma’am would you like to wait in the waiting area. There are seats there to rest your tired feet." I explained that I was waiting for my husband who had gone in search of a telephone.  She said, "I can help you with your bags. Is your husband wearing a green shirt? I saw him at the booth. I will inform him for you." I declined politely. She smiled and walked away. Now, that was some good feeling for me. Husband came back and as we picked up our luggage to leave, she came up to us and said, “Ah, he is finally back. Have a nice day and Enjoy DC". I thought that was so nice of her. I was not alone with my experience. Husband too got some help from a black man. The man helped hubby make the call to our host. Being an 'alien' in the States, making that phone call was difficult. The area code and all made it such a task.
Union Station, Washington DC
One of the shops (upscale I would say)
We arrived at our hosts' house in Mount Pleasant. Our host was not pleasant  when we first arrived. He warmed up gradually and even allowed me to play with his dog. (More on our hosts later) After some briefings by him about Washington DC and some maps, we wasted no time.  We went out immediately aft for a short tour of the neighbouring street after putting our bags in the room. 
I liked what I saw of the neighbourhood. I took to it immediately. It was quiet, clean and had trees lining both sides of the road. I loved the sight of the semi bare trees. They have always intrigued me as back home; trees that looked so brown and bare are mostly dying. 
The house we stayed.
As it was our first day in Washington DC and being new to Mt. Pleasant, we did not venture far. Husband said to allow him some time to study the map then we will start our tour of Washington DC. 
The next day, we took the metro subway to Gallery Place where Chinatown is situated. Hmmm...the Chinatown was not what I had anticipated. I could not find any shops selling Chinese herbal tea that I needed. It was not that 'China' except for the Chinese looking arch. We strolled around to get our bearings.

After studying the map, hubby told me that the city is well planned. The numbers of the streets run systematically. With a good sense of direction, it was easy to get to a destination. With husband’s good sense of direction, I had no worries. White House was the first stop on our itinerary for the day. I was forewarned that it would be all walking as hubby was not sure of the bus-routes. Do I really have a choice?
We walked the surrounding area to get a feel of Washington DC. It was beyond my imagination. Seeing the buildings on the television was unlike looking through my eyes. They looked titanic (maybe I am shrinking in size) and the streets are so wide with so many lanes. Walking at my pace to cross the street before the lights turned red was near impossible. The first time I crossed the street I received a honk. I resorted to scurrying across after that. 
Calbary Baptist Church (just a church that caught my attention)
People are very civilised in Washington DC as I observed so far. They queue patiently. 
We crossed many streets, too many or so I thought. I lamented to husband that my Asian feet are not made for American roads. To that, he said that I would get accustomed to the Americans style of walking!
We needed an appointment to take a tour of the White House (at least 21 days prior to visit). I found out from the White House home page too late. We were just 2 days away from boarding our flight. Therefore, we could only view the White House from afar. We used the camera zoom lens (do not even own a pair of binoculars) to get a closer view. That was about all the pleasure we enjoyed from our White House visit. 
Executive Office Building along Pennsylvania Avenue
The First Division Monument in President's Park
We walked down from Pennsylvania Avenue. Most of the tourist sites are located quite near to one another. By near I mean there is still some serious walking needed and a good pair of walking shoes would do the feet justice.
We could see the Washington Monument from where we stood. It was a few steps away from the First Division Monument (picture above). However, it was not as near as what the picture portray. The picture tell a lie . So, do not be fooled.  
Washington Monument on The National Mall
The Truman Balcony
From the First Division Monument, we walked down to the White House to look at The Truman Balcony. The sprawling lawn in front of the White House made us see a small White House. We had to use the camera and its zoom lens to have a closer look. Ooo, how wonderful to be able to see The Truman Balcony. It was still a good feeling even though it was far. I wished I had taken more effort in planning this vacation then, we would be nearer to the building.
We walked through the Ellipse without realising that it was the Ellipse until we saw the information booth. I wanted to find out more but there was no one around. The park was deserted. My feet were tired so we stopped for a rest. There were a few squirrels scavenging from the garbage bin near the bench we sat. Squirrels as beautiful as these are rare in my country, Malaysia. I made some clucking sound and a squirrel stood up. I did that a few times then I decided to place a small piece of biscuit on my palm. I approached one of them (on top of the bin) with hand outstretched and clucking. I could not believe it; the squirrel stood up and took the biscuit from my hand! I would be feeding monkeys instead if I were back home in Penang, Malaysia. (Laughters)

Look! Squirrels instead of monkeys
It was getting chilly and I thought it would be a good idea if we head 'home'. My husband had other ideas. He was studying the map whilst I was having fun with the squirrels. He told me that there is a very long mall near where we were resting.  If that was not enough to entice me to walk further, he continued by telling me I could shop all I want as the mall is 2 miles long. 
We walked, crossed a few streets and arrived at a big building. I thought it was the shopping place that hubby told me. We walked nearer and a sign there told us it was a museum. The look on hubby's face told me that he had taken me to the wrong place. He stopped to study the map and said, "We will go into the museum first." It was the Smithsonian National Museum of AmericanHistory.
Entrance/Exit into the National Museum
We did not know if photography was allowed. No one was taking any pictures so I advised hubby to keep the camera. The museum has many floors and wings. I loved the First Ladies, the Food section, the Dolls’ House, just to name a few. I had some fun smelling the food. There is even a Julia Child’s kitchen. We did not have this museum on our places to visit list. I would say it was worth our visit. The visit gave us extra general knowledge. I am amazed that such a beautiful museum came with no entrance fee.
This entrance/exit faces The National Mall
My husband could not make head or tail of the map and finally, yes finally decided to approach a passerby. He asked about the mall as in The National Mall stated in the map. The woman pointed across to where we stood and said, "There it is. That is the mall." I went, "What? This is The National Mall? This park is them all?” Now, tell me why did I not ask hubby what was written on the map. Maybe even looking at the map. I had read about the National Mall but did not pay great attention. It is over 2 miles/3 km long and we stood at one end of it. "Now, there goes my retail therapy." I told husband. We had a good laugh. The sad part for me was I had further walking to do with no shopping. (Joking)
The National Mall must be beautiful when the trees are green with leaves my husband told me. I thought it all depends on the individual. I loved the bare trees, as I do not see them back home. I am not talking about dead trees. We caught sight of a few squirrels scurrying up the bare trees. I noticed there was hardly any litter around. These people, they are civic minded people. I could not help thinking so. It was a cooling walk and at the pace my husband decided to keep, I had no complaints. We were heading towards the National Museum of Natural History. My husband has great interest in dinosaurs.
One end of The National Mall
The Smithsonian Castle
We walked past the Smithsonian Castle. It is located on the opposite side of where we stood. There are many museums located along this mall. The Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, just to name a few. The Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol and a few others are also along this mall. 
I have been feeling like a dwarf whenever I go near a building here in DC. This museum, The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is another of them. It is gargantuan. I stood next to one of the columns for a picture.  The columns looked like it reached up to the sky when I looked up. The museum looked busy. There were many people walking into the museum together with us. Again, there was no entrance charge and no tickets were required. 

We were 'greeted' by an African elephant as we walked into the foyer. A check on the web gave me the information that this African elephant was fifty-five years old when it died in Angola in 1955. 
Paleobiology being husband's one of many interests, he headed straight for the Dinosaur Hall of  the museum. He posed for many pictures with the Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur and others. There are many sections to explore. Many things were unknown to us. It was interesting finding out what we did not know. The wrong facts we had in our head. Picture taking took a back seat from then on. 
Life-size blue whale in the 'Life in the Sea' Hall
We spent about 3 hours inside the museum. I did not know I would be interested in any museum. This Smithsonian Museum of Natural History had me wanting to stay longer. Unfortunately, hubby said we have to leave, as it would be sunset soon.
Ice Skating at National Gallery of Art 
National Gallery of Art
My husband, the professional at map reading got us lost. By the time, he decided to ask for directions, we were already many streets away from the subway station. We could see the top section of The Capitol.  Hubby thought since we were near, his definition of near, we decided to go and look at The Capitol. 

As we crossed a street, I could see The Capitol in the distance. It looked magnificent. My feet were tired but the thought of viewing it up close made me push myself to continue walking.
We crossed the road (I scurried across) and husband decided to walk back and stood in the middle. He took a shot of The Capitol. Who could resist such a beautiful sight?
We were still walking when  we heard sirens then police outriders and a black limousine sped past us. Husband was only quick enough to capture a shot of the second car. We are still wondering if The President of the United States was in the first one!
It was quite dark and the place was deserted. The area around The Capitol was not fenced so we could walk around. The area was lighted up there it was...The Capitol, white in colour and it looked so magnificent. Breathtaking. I walked around as husband went about taking pictures after pictures of it.
The Statue of Freedom at the tip
The group of people we saw in the vicinity when we arrived had begun to leave. Some walked away while a few got into their cars. We decided to leave too. Hubby said we could not be too complacent with safety. We headed towards the Capitol South subway station for our journey home. The next day, we found out from a local couple that there had been muggings at this end of the mall. Phew!