Thursday, September 25, 2008

Travelogue: The journey ends...

I can't believe that it has been four months since I updated the travelogue; I wonder what kept me sooooo busy! Anyway, something is brewing up here - hope you will like it once it is up; And continuing with our travelogue - this would probably be the last edition of the US series; i'll come back with something new soon...
Upon my insistence, we decided that we’ll take a trip in an Amtrak train; destination was not decided. We considered a lot of options and finally realized that we really didn’t have too many options because we had to return back in one day! At the most we could spend 3 hours on a one-way journey. We zeroed in on Washington DC; travel time was around 3.5 hours. We decided to start early and take the return trip by 5 pm or so which effectively gave us 7 to 8 hours in Washington. I was tempted to try for the 5:45am train but my colleague assured me that there was no way we’d make it. I guess he was right. The train fares were variable – meaning the early morning train was around $30 cheaper than the other morning trains; anyway, money wasn't a matter - I was ready to spend extra money to travel on Amtrak. The next suitable train was at 7am and it would reach Washington DC, Union Station at around 10am.

I was very excited about the travel – like a kid who is eagerly awaiting his birthday present. Amtrak was one of my childhood fascinations. We both reached the station well ahead of time – we were in by 6:30am. I used the phone booth to make a call to India using a card, which had a few dollars of talk time balance, that another colleague had lent me – I guess I spoke for just three minutes and that made the balance dwindle into cents! Amtrak customers had a separate lounge – nothing grand but a separate area with comfortable seats. There were plenty of shops in Penn Station (New York) but early morning most were closed except for a shop staffed by an Indian – we hopped in to buy a map of Washington and my colleague picked up a photography magazine. He was an avid photographer and the banner on my website is credit to him; and he was the one who introduced me to the world of digital photography (we would take breaks in office to go on nature photography sessions – taking pictures of beetles and leaves which made many a stranger turn their heads to see what we were doing poking our heads inside plants).

Soon we were on our way to the platform. The train looked simple from the outside – a silver colour; nothing dashing – just bland with the Amtrak name and logo. When we stepped it felt special (the kid has got his birthday present!); the interiors were similar to an airplane and the seats were very comfortable. It was really cosy. The train ride was enjoyable – there wasn’t much of the typical rocking effect you get in trains; it was a pretty smooth ride. Still I guess the Japenese bullet trains were the best of the lot - they went at rocket speeds and you wouldn't know that the train was moving till you opened your window! There was a person who checked tickets when the train started. Our train was fairly empty unlike trains in India that were packed to the brim – there were a few people watching movies on portable DVD players while some were working on their laptops, some reading newspapers and some just sleeping! One coach functioned as a canteen – we had typical junk food in the train as well!

The first thing we did was to step down and take a few snaps posing with the Amtrak. And there we stood in the capital of the USA. My colleague booked the return tickets in one of the Amtrak kiosks in the station. The station was beautiful and outside it there was a huge bell, the freedom bell – a replica of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. We took a few snaps there and began treading across Washington. The weather was perfect – it was a bright and sunny day. First up was the Capitol Hill – the heart of the US government; the place where the Senate sessions are held. My colleague took a superb close up picture of a flower, using the macro function on his camera, with Capitol Hill in the background. As we walked further we came across the Smithsonian museums – this was a street with many museum buildings lined up one after the other. We spent only some time in the Air and Space museum – it had lots of informative things; from a small piece of the moon’s surface to a room filled with details about the Wright brothers – it even had the actual aeroplane that the Wright brothers used for their first successful flight. There were diary writings, newspaper clippings, videos, explanations of why the flight was designed the way it was, explanation of concepts like drag and lift and a lot more. Stepping into that museum I realized that it would be good to spend at least a week in Washington – you could learn so many things; and this was within a single room in one museum; there were many rooms like this and four or five more museums! We had our lunch in the Air and Space museum itself – again the typical junk food along with a healthy banana!

The Washington monument is a tall white obelisk – tickets to go to the observatory at the top were sold out for the day. There were many memorials in Washington DC – the Lincoln memorial, Jefferson memorial etc. We walked across to the Holocaust museum where we were taken in a elevator that had a brief introductory video about what was happening during the Hitler regime – the beginning. The elevator itself was made to give a feel of the holocaust; kind of slimy walls with a resemblance to prisons. No photography was permitted inside the dim halls. You can literally learn your history about what happened in the world war in those three floors. Everything (exhibits, photos, newspaper reports, speeches, some real items) were all arranged in chronological order. The focus was on Nazi Germany and holocaust – the extermination of specific groups in society, concentration camps, slave labour in those camps, extermination chambers and gas chambers. We had to speed through the exhibits though I would liked to have spent more time in going through each exhibit in detail – there was plenty of information to digest and you could empathize with those who suffered; made me feel that the petty problems we face in life are nothing compared to what those people went through.

Next up we walked past the famous White House – the area was actually cordoned off many metres away from the house; we could just catch a glimpse of the building. We went to the International Spy Museum – we were curious to see what was there in a spy museum. It was nice – different from the usual museums you’d come across; it had a lot of gadgets on display including pens that could take photographs! From the spy museum I wanted to go to the Washington Zoo but there was hardly any time left; we took a metro train back to Union Station. The metros in Washington had a more professional look compared to those in New York – everything appeared relatively new and the metro stations were very spacious. Back in Union Station I bought a sandwich and joined my colleague in a long queue waiting to board the train. We encountered an American who had married an Indian girl and recently visited Chennai. He belonged to the medical fraternity and was telling about his stay with his in-laws. The train had got delayed but the good thing was that everyone in the queue was patient. And so our trip had come to an end; or so I thought – we had actually walked almost the entire length of the main Washington city!

We settled into the train and after about 45 minutes, as darkness set outside, a loud thud was heard. The electrical systems went off for a while. There was some murmuring among the passengers but not a commotion; I’m not sure if people were frightened or not – we were in the middle of nowhere, just trees on either side of the train and the train had come to a halt with a huge thudding noise and all electrical systems shut down. A few minutes later the lights came on and an announcement was made saying that the damage is being assessed. An official came into our coach a couple of minutes later and said that the train had hit a deer and had suffered damage. He said we would move in the train slowly to the next station where we will board another train and head back to New York. I was curious to know what happened to the deer but before I could ask anything the man left the coach. The deers in US were pretty huge but it was amazing to hear the news that a deer had damaged a train running at full speed! We chugged along the next few kilometres at crawling speed and finally reached the nearest station; it was an open-air station like the small stations we have in India. So now we were already more than an hour behind schedule and though people were obviously frustrated no one lost their temper. We were told that we would be refunded for this trip! In 30 minutes we were in another train and on our way back to New York.

We reached New York well past 11pm and I didn’t have any bus to go back home; ended up going over to my colleague’s place – the night was chilly and the metros were empty; was a little spooky to see New York which is always bustling with people so eery quiet. The area where my colleague was staying had a large Indian population and it was unlike our home which was near a highway. Rents were pretty high and so many people crammed in together in small apartments; the apartment was really tiny – it was a two bedroom apartment but each room was hardly sufficient for even one person's bed! I slept in the main hall, where another person was already fast asleep. He warned me of bed bugs but I didn’t see them at night, had a sound sleep for 5 hours, and when I woke up early in the morning I could see the place infested with bed bugs. They were crawling just about everywhere – the walls, the bed, even on the face of the other person sleeping in my hall! My colleague had become friends with the bed bugs and they never bit him; at first glance it appeared I didn’t have any bites.

Early morning before the sun rose I was out in the streets of New Jersey, taking a train back to New York. The place was deserted and the station was also deserted except for a couple of Indians and an elderly couple. I reached home and my room mate told me that I would have to get sprayed with disinfectants to cleanse myself of the bed bugs! The reason we wanted to return within a day was to make a trip to Statue of Liberty – we made the trip late in the day, my colleague was tired with all the walking in Washington but I pulled him along. On the way, we learnt that the metro train to that route was under renovation and so we were all moved into some special buses (they were like trams). And when we reached the boarding point for ferries going to the Statue of Liberty, we learnt that there were no more tickets for the day. Instead of going to Ellis island (where the Statue of Liberty stands), we went to Staten Island (which is close by) – it just happened that there was a free ferry ride every 30 minutes to Staten Island and we hopped in! The ferry was cool - it had three storeys – two storeys were open with a balcony while the lowest one was a closed storey with only windows to look out through. We came close to the Statue of Liberty and I had to be satisfied with that – this was the second time I was in the US and I had missed the Statute again; the first time I had seen it from far off from the land, this time I was seeing it closer from the sea! And that pretty much wraps up my short trip in the US – hope you enjoyed travelling along with me through the blogs!