MY HOMESTAY AUNT’S NEPHEW, Jack, and his friend, Edison, came to stay at the house for the following month. Freshly graduated from high school (in Taiwan), both of them came to New York for an extended travel trip, and to learn English at the same time. Aunt Hui Qi’s son, Jen, is also back from his month-long trip to Taiwan, and all 4 of us add up to the liveliness of the household.
FOR THEIR FIRST WEEKEND HERE, Aunt Hui Qi bought Jack and Edison a two-day tour to DC from a Chinatown company with a ‘buy 2 get 1 free’ promotion. Knowing that I have plans to go to DC too, she insisted that I go along with them, using the free seat offered. The Chinatown tours can be unbelievably cheap, but it is best if you understand Chinese because the guide can only speak minimal broken English. Otherwise, the buses, itinerary and accommodation are okay, reasonably comfortable giving the fact that this IS a budget tour.
The tour pass by seven states today, starting off from NEW YORK’s Chinatown, the bus went to NEW JERSEY to pick up some passengers. It is weird that although most of the passengers are Chinese (mostly Mainlanders), one-third consists of Indians. The guide does do some explanations about the places we pass by (both in Chinese and then in English), but I doubt if the Indians can understand him. Anyway, I was glad that I understand both, not missing out anything.
I HAVEN’T BEEN ON A SIGHTSEEING TOUR FOR AGES, but I certainly remember being pushed and rushed around as if the guide were our shepherd while we were his sheep. During our first stop in Philadelphia, PENNSYLVANIA (that is the third state), we were given half an hour to take in everything, including George Washington’s statue, the Liberty bell, the old court house, and the toilet that the first ladies used to use. As soon as the bus stops, everyone literally ran down the bus and started taking pictures randomly before time is up. I ran to the Visitor’s Center (not wanting to just look around without any knowledge of what’s going on), and saw people in traditional dresses greeting the visitors and playing traditional instruments. But time ran out so soon, I never got the chance to see all the attractions there and had to get on the bus with an unhappy face.
We had our lunch in DELAWARE, a Chinese buffet for only $9.50. The food are not all Chinese because you can see Sushi and Salad and Cheese Wanton (which turned out to be quite delicious), and chopsticks are not compulsory.
BEFORE ARRIVING AT DC, we passed by MARYLAND (fifth state of the day). Arriving at WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, which is the capital of the great United States of America, I realized that it has clean streets and plenty of trees. The main attractions here are the monuments of past presidents, war memorials, and many museums from the Smithsonian Institution. Most of the attractions here are free, a heaven for budget-wise travelers like me.
I LEARNED THAT James Smithson, a British scientist, donated all his money to the United States government to set up an institution in preserving and researching of knowledge. He however, had never set foot on the States, and the reason behind his generous donation remains a mystery. Anyway, Smithsonian Institution came to birth, and many world-class (free, yippee) museums were established, many in the National Mall area of DC. The National Mall, FYI, is a piece of rectangular land, with the Capitol Hill at the Far East side and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end. The Washington monument, which is currently the tallest building in DC, is in between. All the other important museums are in the National Mall, along with wide patches of grass lawns which is great for picnics.
Our first stop was the Air and Space Museum, which houses many must see icons from the history of flight and space exploration, and is the most visited museum in the world. As you enter the hall, historical airplanes and space ships and missiles hover above you. I saw with my very own eyes the Wright brothers’ airplane, the Apollo 11, and even got the chance to rub on the Moon rock for luck. Given the short time allocated, I can only manage to see the popular exhibits, but I bet the whole museum is filled with fun and knowledge.
Another museum we visited today is the Natural History Museum. Although free of charge, its exhibits are very well organized, incredibly entertaining for the children and the kids at mind. A huge elephant artifact, which looks very familiar because it appeared Ben Stiller’s movie ‘Night at the Museum’ stand tall at the lobby. However, the true ‘gem’ of the museum’s collection is the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond, largest of its kind. It is said that the diamond was cursed, and whoever possesses it will have bad luck. The diamond did indeed changed many owners until it was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in a brown paper bag by its last owner. Cursed or not, sending an invaluable by parcel does not happen everyday. My personal favorite would be the special exhibit of wildlife in photography by National Geographic Society. The African Voices exhibition is also very extensive in introducing the African cultures and Rastafari.
In the mammals exhibits, they showed a video in an auditorium about Harry the chimpanzee, and how all mammals are related. The narrator then explained how mammals have special ear bones, have hair, and how their mothers make milk. Suddenly, a boy shouted out of curiosity to his mum, ‘Mum, do you make milk?’. Instantly leaving all the adults giggling and his mum blushing pink red.
As all tours would, we were brought to the Capitol Hill, to witness for ourselves, the United States Capitol, which serves as the seat of government to the United States Congress. Next, we went to visit the Jefferson memorial and the Lincoln memorial. The great big statue of Abraham Lincoln sits inside his memorial, while on the steps outside, you can see the place where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. At the sides of the Lincoln memorial lies the Vietnam and Korean War memorials, which are both equally heartbreaking and devastating to remember. The Korean War Memorial has a long granite wall, with photographic images of people involved in the world sandblasted into. 19 statues stand within a triangle, depicting a scene where the troops go to war. If you look closely, you can see that they have all have a disturbing look of confusion and fright, reenacting how the soldiers felt when they went to a country they did not know, fighting a war they did not understand. The Washington monument, being the tallest stone structure of the world, can almost always be seen anywhere near the National Mall. From the Lincoln memorial, the monument can be seen with its beautiful image on the reflection pool. The White House is our last stop in DC, and we were greeted with a nuclear weapon protestor who was said to be here since 1981. We peeked into the gates, but there were no signs of Bush and his family. The place was heavily protected by the local police, and there were even a few on their cool looking bicycles.
DINNER TIME CAME TOO SOON. The bus drove us to VIRGINIA (the seventh state of the day), for our meals. I opted not joining the others on their Chinese fare (because the dishes they ordered are all non-vegetarian ones), and went solo on my quest for edible vegetarian food. I found a Mexican fast food restaurant, which suits my budget, and ordered a veggie burrito with tacos for only $7. It was hot, spicy and nice, and the big portions just left me bloody full.
Our tour did a great job by letting us spend a night at Comfort Inn, which is not bad at all. I had the queen sized bed to myself while the other two boys shared one. Having travelled seven states in one day, I have no problems arriving at my eight and last state, the ‘State of Unconsciousness’.