Thursday, August 31, 2006

From A to B in DC

A fish inside a fish, inside a museum

Thanks to an old act of Congress, no skyscrapers are to be found in Washington DC. Keeping the buildings under a certain height (I don't know the exact stipulations, but from what I could see it seemed to be about six storeys) means that the typical North American block layout gives DC an even more regimented feel to it. Around 'The Mall' - the central rectangular area containing most of the tourist sites - all the structures look very similar. That's not to say they aren't impressive - large pillared sandstone buildings squat quietly next to each other as far as you can see. Every so often a newer one breaks the pattern - like the Museum of Native American History (more of which on a later post), or the quite dreadful Canadian Embassy. The older museums do look like those in Europe, which I suppose was what the architects were after - the National Museum of Natural History bears more than a passing resemblance to it's counterpart in South Kensington.

I started there, as I've been to more Natural History Museums than I can remember - and wanted to see if DC's would supplant any in my unofficial top three; London, Vienna and Wellington (unofficial because Wellington's Te Papa isn't strictly a pure Natural History Museum). The NMNH was free, as all the best ones are, and immediately through the doors is a staggering African bull elephant in mid-charge. Stuffed animals are one of the pre-requisites for greatness when it comes to Natural History Museums, and dinosaurs are of course another. After walking past the large taxidermied pachyderm, which at 13ft high takes some doing, the prehistoric section was full of large blackened recreated skeletons in various lizardy poses. Although it was pretty busy, there was a lot to see and read about - the highlight being the photograph above.

Sadly I forgot to write down what it was called, but it's a fossil fish that took up an entire wall of the top level of the dinosaur section. I reckon it was probably 20ft long, possibly more - easily the biggest fossil fish I'd ever seen. Of course, even more amazingly was the second smaller fish inside it - this was was about the size of me, so 6ft or so (ahem). Both were incredibly detailed - just look at the mouth on the larger fish, it looks like a modern day fish, not a skull from a long-extinct monster. There's a larger version of my picture here. The hunter certainly had an exciting (last) day, gobbling up a fairly impressive meal and then almost immediately becoming involved in some kind of horrible catastrophe that froze it forever with indigestion. It was an incredible think to look at.

Elswhere there was a nifty insectarium - the O. Orkin Insectarium, to give it it's full title. Everything in DC is named after someone, and in this case not without a certain irony as the generous donor Mr Orkin made his fortune in the pest control business. It was also predicatably busy, but thankfully American kids have low attention spans, and soon flitted from case to case as I stood there peeking at spiders and scorpions and the like. Hitting another of my pre-requisites, NMNH has a rather large and rather dull section on minerals - the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, and a brand new gallery of stuffed mammals - called simply, Mammals. I immediately re-christened it the Richard Taylor Cloistered Mammalarium brought to you in association with Down Under and Beyond Spectaculo-Galleria. My favourite was the Cheetah. Elsewhere (amongst other things) was a very interesting exhbition about the journey of Lewis and Clark, complete with items they used, journals they wrote, and artefacts from the Native Americans they encountered.

So feeling suitably impressed - I have to say it displaced Vienna's NHM from my top three - I left and waded through the sticky air to the nearby National American Museum of History. This one dates from the 1960's, and is another of the Smithsonian's many museums. Unfortunately, it's currently in the process of moving to a sparkling new building, so many of the larger exhibits (and even entire wings) were closed off and packed up. But there was still plenty to see, not least an exhibition of the history of the Muppets. The NAMH is famed for it's eclectic collections, and it was interesting to wander along from the Vietnam War to Julie Garland's red shoes to Baltimore area trams. Despite being less than 2/3 full I was there for hours learning about the lives of early Jewish immigrants in Cincinnati, Mohammed Ali's career, and what kind of animal Gonzo is supposed to be.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Various bonus photos

An old one, but a great photo taken by Edd in Sydney Aquarium in 2002. A giant ray drifts over Paul's head above the perspex roof of the shark tunnel. I remember Edd walking up to the ticket counter and asking how much it was to go in. "20 dollars" said the woman behind the desk. "It's 20 bucks to get in" he said to us, as we walked up behind him. "No it isn't - it's 20 dollars", said the woman, snootily. I think she was possibly the only rude Australian I ever encountered.

Sunset looking from my old flat in Sydney, over the terraces of Paddington. The step-shaped skyscraper in the distance is the World Tower on George Street, which was completed while I was there. After the long walk home from work, I used to stand out here on the back decking with a tin of Carlton watching the bats flap lazily over our house. Can't see any in this picture, but every night at the same time they would all fly from the Botanic Gardens by the harbour to Centennial Park behind us, in a slow, unbroken line. They were so regular, there is even a 'Follow the bats' pub crawl you can do, along their route. Tough to get them to buy a round, though.

The Pinnacles Desert in Kalbarri, Western Australia, is well named. Water and wind eroded a sandstone plateau over thousands of years, leaving twisted columns sitting in the middle of a desert. At first glance, they looked to me like African-style termite mounds - although we saw those further North and they were much, much bigger. Early explorers looking at Kalbarri from the sea thought these pinnacles were a large city.

The Hungarians love a statue - this one sits atop the large hill on the Buda side of the Danube in Budapest. Initially erected by the Soviets, the woman was holding a missile and commemorated their soldiers who died in wartime. When the Russians were forced out of Hungary, Communist statues and iconography were banned, and a feather of peace replaced the warlike imagery on top of the plinth.

Takeaway lunch, Japanese train-style. I never get tired of looking at this picture - it sums up all the amazing food we ate over there, and how incredibly intricate it all was. The bottom right corner has a piece of carrot cut to the shape of a dragonfly - and this is a £6 meal from a station shop - no soggy Tuna Mayo sandwiches here. The orangey balls are salmon eggs, one of the few things I could identify (apart from the prawn). It was all fantastic.

The nearest thing North America has to a castle town - Quebec City, Canada. The large building in the background is actually a hotel - and a very expensive one at that. The wooden boardwalk runs for about a mile along the top of the main hill, giving you great views over the St Lawrence river. Grant and me have our hands stuffed in our pockets because even though it was sunny, it was freezing.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Memorial Day

Washington is a city of monuments. As a planned city, it gave the authorities the freedom to build roads and buildings around memorials, not just squeeze them in wherever they could find a spare patch of green. One of the most famous is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, here with the Washington Monument reflecting in the shiny black granite. Over 58,000 names are carved into the wall, which is sunk into the ground - it was called 'America's black gash of shame' by some veterans when it opened in 1982. I went there first thing in the morning, and it was already busy. Vietnam is still very much in the minds of Americans it seems. I saw a long-haired man in a denim biker's jacket weeping as he looked at some of the names, and overheard someone else saying "...and they had to drink water from the swamp". It's incredibly somber and sobering.

Just along a short path is the massive Lincoln Memorial, an enormous white marble Greek-style temple. You get great views down 'The Mall' from the top of the steps, and a small plaque set into the floor notes the spot Martin Luther King Jr stood on when he gave his 'I have a dream' speech in 1963 - arguably the most famous speech in history. These people are looking at another - the Gettysburg Address, which is carved into one of the side walls of the chamber. I'd seen the statue a few times on TV, but seeing it up close was stunning - it's 19ft high, and although my guidebook said it's made from 28 interlocking pieces of stone, it looks like one enormous statue. The only real shame are the constant aircraft flying overhead from nearby Ronald Reagan Airport.

A recent (1995) addition, the Korean War Memorial is one of the most effective in the whole city. A squad of soldiers (all carefully multi-ethnic and multi-national) are depicted on patrol, walking towards an American flag, and a large comtemplative pool (behind where I was standing). There are 19 of them, and on the wall to the left are thousands of faces etched into another long piece of black granite - aside the phrase 'Freedom is not free'. Despite being covered in cobwebs, you can't help but admire the statues, and the overall impression they put on you. It's hard to miss, as each man is about 10ft tall.

The largest memorial in terms of ground acreage is that of Franklin D Roosevelt, unveiled in 1997 (it's over 7 acres in size). It forms a history of the man's life, and you walk along through a series of scenes and bronzes about various things he got up to. There are lots of waterfalls and other water features (reflecting pools feature prominently in the Mall's monuments). Every so often one of his famous quotes is carved into a large block of concrete - which always makes me wonder if they wrote it themselves or it was thought up by a speech writer who never got any credit. FDR's memorial also features his wife and his dog (as you can see people obviously can't resist rubbing the dog's ears - but not the president's). No part of the memorial features his two ever-present items though - his wheelchair (he used one for 24yrs after contracting Polio), and his cigarette (apparently he was a chainsmoker).

A plane zips low over the Jefferson Memorial into RR Airport. It was really low too, they come in over the Lincoln Memorial, then bank to the right over the tidal basin that all these sites encircle, before coming in for a final approach over the rotunda to the third president. He's inside in statue form, and there's a musuem underneath about his life, which was good for me as I knew almost nothing about him. Apparently he was something of the geek, creating endless societies and institutions to the sciences. He copied every letter he ever wrote for posterity, and wrote down everything he ever bought or sold in a series of notebooks - an Accounts Book, a Farm Book, and a Garden Book. When us evil Brits burned down the Library of Congress, he sold his entire collection of books to the colony to re-establish it. What a nice chap.

The Grandaddy of them all is the Washington Monument - like a veritable Blackpool Tower, it can be seen from all over the city. Also like Blackpool Tower, you can go up it in a lift, but the queues were so long I didn't fancy waiting in the 40C heat just to peek out of a small window at the top. 555ft and 5inches high, it was started before the Civil War, but construction had to be halted when the fighting started. This caused the rain to get in, and even today you can see the grubby tidemark about a third of the way up the column. After the War had ended, the project was completed and in 1884 it was topped with a large lump of Aluminium - which they probably pronounced Aloo-minum - then the world's most expensive metal (and also a tremendous conductor of electricity). Four years later, it was opened to the public, and men could ride up in a steam-powered elevator that took twenty minutes to get to the top. Women weren't allowed up as it was too dangerous, proving once again how smart they are.

In 2004, the newest memorial was inaugurated on the Mall, that to the people who fought and died in WWII. It was immediately controversial because it was deemed to be blocking the view of the Lincoln Memorial (seen here in the background), and some in the corridors of power are asking if there are too many monuments cluttering the space by the Potomac. It features lots of bronze eagles and wreaths, and is divided into two equal semi-circles, representing the two American theatres of the war - Europe (or Atlantic as it's inscribed), and Pacific. Major battles are named, including a few my Grandfather fought in. There's a large plume of water in the centre, and of course more reflecting pools. These seem to be a haven for ducks, who were sitting in a row on the main concrete wall overlooking the memorial, oblivious to the masses of tourists taking their photo.

One of the most famous buildings in the world, the White House, which according to my guidebook has the most famous address in the United States - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (not that I knew that). This is the only view of it you can get, through a high fence at the back of the gardens. It looked totally deserted, about half a mile of lawn and neat flowerbeds (this is taken on my most maximum zoom), all innocent and unimportant. Of course, if you could leap over the fence I bet you'd only get about half a dozen steps before they caught you, there are probably pressure pads and laser tripwires and all sorts. Or maybe not, who knows. I'm not sure why there are what appear to be bedsheets hung outside the top windows. To combat the heat? To keep prying eyes away? Or maybe Dubya had a nocturnal 'accident' that required some immediate laundry. Anyway, it was built in 1800 and used to be called the Executive Mansion - it was renamed by Congress in 1902. You used to be able to go round on a tour, but not any more. I went to the nearby White House Visitor's Centre to find out more about the building, but it was closed. And George wonders why people hate him.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Scrimmaging with the Skins

After a short flight from Boston on an airline I'd never heard of, I ended up at Baltimore Airport. A long wait outside the terminal in steaming heat later, I got to the DC Metro via a rickety bus, and then to my cheap (but surprisingly nice) hotel. The very next day, without having seen anything of the city, I scuttled out to FedEx Field to attend the Washington Redskins Family Fun Day. Not that I had any of my family with me, of course. FedEx Field seats almost 91,000 people, yet it looks like an old airship hanger adrift on a sea of concrete. The 'fun day' consisted of a practice match against their fierce local rivals the Baltimore Ravens, in preparation for the new season. Despite the stifling heat, and the brief (2hrs) practice, 48,000 people turned up.

Your author all greasy with sunblock, and not a little excitement, as he meets his first ever cheerleader. Some internet company was giving fans a free photo in exchange for their email address - so for a lifetime of spam (well, more spam than I get at the moment anyway), I got in line, and ended up talking to Christine. Our conversation went something like "Hi, what's your name?" "Richard. What's yours?" "Christine." "I've never met a cheeleader before." "Oh, that's nice." Then a forced grin apiece (at which she has obviously had more practice), and I was dispatched in favour of the next person in line. She was very friendly though. If you click the link, you can find out all about her - we have a fair bit in common. We've both been to Japan, are both (ahem) 30, and both have no beauty pageant experience. However I can't say my favourite book is 'Cheeky the Mouse'.

The home team meet for a team talk before the scrimmage begins. Essentially it's a practice where at the end they play a series of minigames with the other team, so they can get an idea of how their various units are progressing before the season begins. Even if you don't know anything about American Football, you probably know it happens in a series of short, scripted set-pieces called 'plays'. So that each man knows exactly where he's supposed to run and who he has to run into, they practice them over and over again, and players learn many hundreds of combinations that they are expected to instantly remember and act upon at a moments notice, in 100F heat, and with 25stone men trying to knock them out. Even if most of these guys aren't academic geniuses, they've got to be seriously smart to make it all work.

I was pleased to see a bit of banter between the fans going on. The 'fun day' was free, and you could sit anywhere, so I scaled one of the huge stands to find the shade, and ended up amongst a few Ravens fans (Baltimore is only an hour or so from DC - in fact FedEx Field is actually in Maryland). Of course, most were Redskins fans. This bloke was constantly standing up and shouting at a couple of Ravens supporters, telling them to "Go on back to Bal'more", amongst other things. But it was all reasonably good natured. The vast distances between American cities means very few away fans make it to games.

Washington practice their punting. They went through this meticulously, coaches with clipboards keenly watching each man as the ball was kicked away. Checking their decision making, where they put their feet, how high their hands were, how they adapted to a Baltimore player coming at them. The punter got his kicks measured (those yard markings come in handy). After a few, some of the players were rotated, to give younger ones the chance. Rookies and free agents for hire tried to impress the coaches as the first teamers took a breather. For them, with one good move they could be nearer to getting a contract and at least the NFL minimum salary of $275,000. They brought on a Rookie punter to have a go, and all of his kicks wobbled and died, barely making it half of the way of the incumbent kicker. The coaches made their notes, and he trudged off the field and sat down.

This was what the crowd had come to see. I've followed the NFL since it was first broadcast on UK TV in 1985, and have been to the US four times, yet never been to a game. So for me, I guess this was it. The first teamers had a quick 'game', with a few rules to avoid serious injuries - nobody was allowed to touch the Quarterbacks, the stars of the team. This photo captured one of the biggest moments of the match. The Ravens running back (entering the crowd of players on the left), jumped over a fallen player and was walloped by safety Sean Taylor (running just above the number '40' on the turf). The crowd all jumped up and started yelling, as the Ravens player had to be helped off the field with a concussion. Soon after, the Redskins intercepted a pass from Baltimore QB Steve McNair and scored a touchdown, winning the game, and sending the faithful home happy.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Battling the CHI

Your author, losing

CHI being a new weather-related abbreviation I learned after arriving in Boston - Cumulative Heat Index. This is the forecast air temperature added to the humidity to produce the effective temperature to the average joe walking the street, and of course it's usually bad news (although I guess in winter the windchill makes the CHI go the other way). I always knew the East coast of the USA in August would be hot - but it's far different to the pounding dry heat I acclimatised to in Sydney. Coming in to land at Logan, the info page on the onboard map screen thing gave the folowing details - 'TIME 11:05pm; TEMP 32C'. When I left the air-conned terminal, the sticky air hit me like a wave.

After a day of trying to find indoor things - during which I took the above photo I like to call 'Self portrait at 29.99', the heatwave plaguing the Eastern Seaboard had subsided slightly on my second day, although it was still way over 100F. It was my birthday though, so after a well-deserved lie-in and a bit of the NFL Network (an entire TV channel devoted to American Football 24hrs a day), I had to get out of the house and do something. So I went to look at some Japanese art in the Peabody Museum in Salem. Famous for it's witch-related past, the coastal Massachusetts town is home to one of the great American art museums.

I spent most of the afternoon there, wandering around looking at all the Asian bits and pieces, before catching the MBTA Commuter train back to the city. Almost every time I get on a train in America, someone starts talking to me - it obviously brings out the social people (or the wacky ones). On this occasion a man sat next to me on the platform and started telling me about the time he was in Puerto Rico and saw someone fall asleep standing up, but not fall over. He even demonstrated the necessary stance, before wandering off to chat to a woman he saw with one of those folding bicycles.

That night, we went out to Harvard (my friends and I, not me and the Puerto Rican) - to Charlie's Kitchen, a diner type restaurant which serves some seriously good cheeseburgers. The Red Sox were on the TV - losing to the Cleveland Indians in a game I had tried to get tickets for - and they even had what they call over there 'Boddington's Pub Ale', which is basically Boddington's but in a slightly different sized glass. Travels well, though. The night was fairly warm, so we walked around Harvard Square looking into various shop windows, before stumbling across a large crowd of people standing intently before a shopfront. Turns out they were all watching the baseball through the window - they were five deep, blocking the pavement. In the road was a Cambridge Fire Engine, parked (or 'pahked') in front, with the firemen sitting in a row on the ladder, to get a better view of the telly. I wished I'd brought my camera out with me - it looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A temporary post...

For maybe a day or so. If you're wondering why there's been little movement on DUaB for a while - I'm in the States at the moment and am a) having too much fun, and b) not finding any internet access. I decided not to bring my spangly new MacBook for security reasons, but of course without it I'm reduced to grabbing ten free minutes in the 'Executive Office' of the cheap (but very nice) hotel I'm currently staying at in Washington DC. So I'll be venturing out to Dupont Circle tomorrow to track down an internet cafe and hopefully stick some photies up and such.

So quickly, I arrived OK from Heathrow on a short but squashed flight. I was asked to give up my aisle seat so a couple could sit together and ended up in between an enormously fat white man and an enormously fat black woman - but it was only 6hrs so not too bad. I had time to work out it was the 61st flight I've taken, which ain't bad considering I'm only twentyni...thirty. Crap. Yeah, I turned 30 on the 3rd and - and I kid you not - discovered two grey chest hairs that morning. Two! Anyway, to move on from the subject of my chest, I spent the day looking at stunning Asian art in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachussets, before going to the place where good burgers go when they die - Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square. A few beers, some fancy cake, and it was - as they say here - all good.

The weather here is OK now, but my first day in Boston it was 109F plus the humidity, but I'll cover that in my first proper post (this is a brief - or was a brief - update after all). That night the LOW temperature reached was 79F - the lowest it got to during the night, that is. It was 32C at 11pm. Crazy. Anyway, now I'm in Washington it's still 90F, but after my time in Sydney I can manage that. Today I spent all day at a practice match of the NFL's Washington Redskins, so I'll be doing a special post later on, with a couple of amusing photos of me with the cheerleaders. They loved my accent.

Right, I'm off to wander around the memorials and such tomorrow - I'll start sticking up retrospective posts on each day so far when I can. Thanks for all your birthday emails, and I'll see you soon. And Craig, I can't come to the pool tournament as I'm in America.