One of my most memorable trips in the United States is visiting Washington DC during the American Independence Day on 4th of July.
From first impressions, the National Mall is a park-like structure within which most buildings of political importance are situated. It was really cool to see people having picnics, walking their dogs and doing outdoor yoga classes right in front of buildings that seated the highest powers of the nation and the world.
While there are several museums and monuments to see in National Mall, I couldn’t cover them because of limited time and very large walking distances. It is similar to Las Vegas – the buildings are bigger than you think, and farther than you think – the surround flat gardens with no visual reference point create an optical illusion.
While there is a lot to see and do here, I had a memorable experience in the National Archives Museum.
We were herded by a guide who pointed to signs saying the pages of the original documents including the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights were fragile. It was at this moment that some alarm on my phone went off, and I pulled out my phone to see the alarm and time.
As soon as I did this, several security agents popped out of thin air, and grabbed my wrist and neck.
“What’chya doin’ hun’ ?” one of them said, “If you’re tryna take photos, your flash’ll be burning ’em down.”
Then, they took my phone, saw that it was only an alarm and not an attempt at flash-photography, turned it off and gave it back to me. Apparently, the flash-light from mobile cameras are enough to burn down these documents even through the protective glass – documents that validate the history of the birth of United States.
I will tell my future great-great-grandchildren about the time I almost accidentally voided the legal existence of the largest superpower nation of our times.
It was charming to see the White House for the first time. Here was the residence of one of the highest seat of powers in the world, and yet it is modest and austere. The surrounding gardens had Park Rangers driving by and waving friendly hellos to tourists. Surrounding that was the chatter of street-performers downtown.
4th of July Parade
The Independence Day parade was a great sight. It started off with people dressed in Colonial attire, with uniforms from the Revolutionary War between British Imperial and Continental forces.
Then, came various armed forces and forces of law and order in their respective uniforms.
And in the end, were various groups promoting racial and religious diversity, including a float for Sikh-Americans, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans.
My favorite part of the event was the speech, given by the head of National Archives. It started by a live enactment of Continental leaders denouncing the British king as a tyrant and regaling the colonies to secede from the Empire, while we, the audience were instructed to “Hear, Hear” and “Boo” at the appropriate pauses.
Next was the announcement of the winner of a contest to summarize the Revolutionary War to a Tweet, which was . – “We’re us. not u. k?”
Following this was a moving speech (with sign-language interpreters) about how the founding fathers risked death for treason and stood up for their ideals even in a dangerous political climate. There were many stories about how documents like the Declaration of Independence had to be kept secret and pass hands regularly. The Founding Fathers also had forged ones in circulation in order to keep the real one away from British Imperial spies.
It ended with how the Declaration of Independence was safeguarded throughout history up to today except for the one time when a bounty-hunter stole it in the last decade. A ripple of giggles followed this reference to Nicholas Cage.
One of the best museums in DC is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Not only do the mammoths and dinosaurs bring the prehistoric era back to life, but the building itself is extremely charming.
Of course, I made sure I walked out before sunset and night when the creatures come alive.
Another spot I stopped at was Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated. There is also an Abe’s Cafe next to it, with a themed menu to honor this legacy.
The Spy Museum in DC was a pleasant surprise and the star of the trip. This museum has a huge inventory of objects used by US spies during Cold War, along with many Soviet intelligence artifacts which were confiscated too.
It also tells various stories. My favorite one was how the police found out that a random mail-box in a Middle-American suburb – is not supposed to be there – and not registered with USPS. Of course, turned out, it was Soviet-Installed, and used to pass information between spies.
When the time for the White House Fireworks was approaching, the park was no longer filled with cheery park-rangers. Instead, a large militia of armed US Secret Service agents herded the tourists out, put up barriers at multiple levels and barricaded several entrances to the white house.
The US Secret Service agents were exactly like the movies – their bulletproof vests in the front showed the name of the organization, and beyond that, they were fully suited, wearing shades and having an ear-piece with wiring, and carrying guns.
Seeing they were generally friendly, I approached one of them and asked where the best spot to view the fireworks were, half-prepared to raise my hands if he pointed his gun at me. But he said in a friendly tone, “Son, it’s in the top floor of the Hyatt Hotel the other side of the street. There’s an open-bar. Your first time here? Enjoy.”
This banter attracted several other tourists towards the array of US Secret Service agents, and they were soon bombarded with other questions about where the nearest restroom was, how to get to the bus stand from there and what restaurants would be open after the fireworks were over. The last I saw of my guy was him blushing to pose with an elderly Chinese Aunty while her husband was taking their photo.
The fireworks came on before we could move, and we contented by taking pictures from a nearby bus-stand which had both the white house and the fireworks in view. I spoke to the other tourists including the Chinese couple, and we all took photos of each other.
By no means was this trip a complete one, as I was doing a Train-Trip between major East-Coast cities – Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
For my next visit, I would definitely want to see GeorgeTown which is a historic city preserved from colonial era. I would also see the Library of US Congress if possible – which is one of the largest libraries in the world.