Washington DC, USA
17-19 January 2013
I went to Washington DC with the express intention of visiting the Smithsonian museum, and what a mission that had become. As I quickly discovered when I got there, there are far too many branches of the Smithsonian to discover, well over a dozen! So I selected one; disappointed that I was unable to see a Space Shuttle ‘in the flesh’ in Florida, I made sure I visited the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum.
It was incredible to be up close and personal with the Space Shuttle Discovery, left in the same condition as it arrived after it’s final mission in 2011. I was surprised with what the outer shell appears to be made out of. It is not the clean, shiny aluminium that you come to expect from modern aircraft. From a short distance, the white exterior of the craft appears to be made of a fabric laid similar to that of a bandage over a broken arm. But despite it not quite looking and feeling quite as I expected, I was still in awe at the vehicle, an amazing contraption that redefined what was possible by man in space, and circled the world countless times. It was still special, even if one of it’s main features was that it could launch massive devices that could have blown the Soviet Union to smithereens if the need arose (the proportion of classified Shuttle missions was about 1 in every 4 up until the late 80’s.)
Having left there, I made my way back into the District of Columbia and visited the National Mall. Challenged with having so many attractions to see, I picked up a hire bike and set off on a journey for the two hours of daylight that remained. It was not until seeing the massive tracts of public space stretching from the Capitol building to the National Monument and the White House that it really became clear how big of a deal the Presidential Inauguration, due to happen In three days, actually was. Barricading, temporary viewing screens, and portaloos were everywhere stretching for kilometres. Newspapers were full of articles expressing concern about inane but related issues such as the 40% reduction in portaloos compared to the last inauguration, and what that will mean for public hygiene. Television stations were advertising rolling coverage starting at 4am for two days straight. Road signage told people to avoid travelling in the inner city. Stores popped up on the street selling all kinds of gimmicky merchandise that was readily snapped up by the punters. The Washington Metro was littered with signage and announcements telling people to only travel if they had tickets for the inauguration, buy their stored value fare cards in advance, and to avoid changing lines if possible. I’m not sure what the exact figure was, but they were expecting 800,000 – it was a big deal.
I even stumbled on the Friday afternoon outside broadcast of the CNN programme, ‘The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,’ in which an anchor, with an very appropriately fierce name for a war journalist who cut his teeth in Afghanistan, always starts his program with some hard hitting and often political journalism with a very strong US bias (the topics of the day were the French intervention in Mali, and Lance Armstrong’s confession on Oprah), and always disintegrates by the end of the hour with some soft filler stories about a new diet pill or how cul-de-sacs are the new suburban menace. He always looks so uncomfortable doing those stories.[youtube http://youtu.be/yHigaIh0QrI]
I managed to bonehead my way into many shots during the first half hour, thus making my worldwide television debut on CNN International. I tried, and failed, to pull wheelies on the incredibly heavy bicycle in the background of the camera shot live to an audience across North and South America. The show was scheduled to go to air in the Asia Pacific region seven hours later, I told people at home to record it, but apparently it was substituted by some actual breaking news, which was sad. I’d like to think that it was played at some point later in the day.
By then, the sun was setting, and I ventured into the city centre in search of the food I had been craving on many occasions over the previous seven weeks, delicious Nando’s chicken. Washington DC is the only place in the USA where it can be found, and it didn’t let me down.