We arrived in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania in the fog and rain, and with no campsite nearby we located the nearest Comfort Inn. The next morning with rain jackets, umbrellas and maps in hand we headed off to explore Philly’s Independence Park and historic district to try and understand the origins of this nation. It seemed that this is the destination for every school field trip and together with a few straggling tourists and hundreds of school children we listened to the park rangers telling us “no bubblegum allowed” and “make sure you take everything with you.” Security was tougher than going through an airport security check, the lady guard spent what seemed like several minutes going through my little purse, checking the Kleenex or perhaps she was just looking for bubble gum. I felt I was back in school, although the park rangers provided excellent information, I whispered to Tom, “He would make a great teacher at a reform school.”
The Independence National Historic Park together with the old city has been called, “America’s most historic square mile” and the top attraction is the 2,080lb bronze Liberty Bell commissioned in 1751. The bell was tolled on important occasions such as the reading of the Declaration of Independence but in the 19th century it became badly cracked and is no longer tolled and has not been rung since George Washington’s birthday. The Liberty Bell now sits cracked, broken and unused perhaps an ironic reminder that not all things are truly free in the USA.
The room where the US Constitution was signed has been beautifully restored.
Despite the chilly rain we enjoyed strolling around the city especially enjoying the magnificent murals. In 1984 the city started a program to eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city and it has worked its magic. Large colourful murals, over 3000 of them decorate this city and should be an example to any city plagued by graffiti. Graffiti artists were provide opportunities to channel their creative talent into mural-making under the guidance of Jane Golden.
We passed by Elfreth’s Alley a tiny cobblestoned street which is believed to be the oldest continuously lived in street in the USA. Old buildings line the streets, banks, US Postal Services, Carpenters Hall, churches and an old city hall. We were wet and tired and it was time to head back to the hotel for a hot bath, ooh that was wonderful.
We arrived in Gettysburg reported to be the most haunted place in the USA. Once the site of a 3 day battle fought in 1863 by 100,000 Union soldiers against 75,000 confederate soldiers and after which a staggering 51,000 lay dead or wounded.
The Confederates were turned back and the Gettysburg battle is now recognised as a major turning point in the history of the USA. To commemorate the site a burial ground was purchased and President Lincoln dedicated the Gettysburg National Memorial with his Gettysburg address. We drove the 16 mile route around the battle field which today, is pretty countryside with a terrible history. It is more than a road trip it is a journey into the soul of the battle that shaped the future United States of America. American’s most personal war. Today there are over 1,800 monuments and memorials to be seen.
We had planned to spend another day in Gettysburg but when Jon Stewart announced he was going to be having a rally “To Restore Sanity” on the National Mall in Washington we decided to head for Washington so we could attend this rally and it was a good thing we did. Washington is very different to New York City. There is a more relaxed feeling about it, people are friendlier on the metro, tourist guides less hassled and the locals seem less rushed. Was I still in the USA, can two cities be so different? Washington is very easy for a tourist to explore as most museums, galleries, monuments and memorials are located along the Washington Mall. There is a sense of familiarity as most of Washington I have seen many times in the media. Some things surprised me however. The Washington Mall seems bigger, the White House smaller, the Washington Memorial higher, also Arlington Cemetery is not in Washington, and the Smithsonian Museum is not one museum. It is in fact the world’s largest museum complex consisting of 19 National museums and galleries and best of all they are free.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I first learnt about Raphael Lemkin when visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda in 2006. He was a Polish Jew who coined the word genocide in1944 to describe what was happening then in German-occupied Europe. The holocaust, the mass murder of millions of Jews and others was a watershed event in world history. As I entered the Holocaust Memorial Museum, an identity card of a real person who lived during the Holocaust was given to me. Gertruda Nowak was a pretty girl born in Poland in 1930. She was one of five children and was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. She was 9 years when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and the area they lived in was formally annexed to Germany. She was only 12 years old when her father was taken away by the Nazis, who accused him of working for the Polish underground. 3 months later the Nazis came for her mother and the rest of his family. Gertruda managed to escape by hiding at her grandmother’s house. She was arrested when 13 years old and sent to a slave labour camp for children in Lorz’s Jewish ghetto where she found two of her brothers. Children died there and sometimes the guards would bury people who were barely alive together with the corpses. Gertruda was freed on January 19 1945. She and her youngest brother were the only members of her family to survive. After the war, she remained in Poland.
As we walked through the museum, I felt a sense of sadness thinking that still today people are experiencing the horrors of war and wondered if there will ever be peace in the world.
At 555 feet, the Washington Memorial soars above the Washington Mall and the view of the nation’s capital from the top was spectacular. Although the corner stone was laid in 1848 construction was halted after 10 years due to lack of funding and only restarted 18 years later and completed in 1884. As we came down the elevator we could see where the stone changes colour from the stopping and restarting of construction.
There are many memorials and monuments to the “founding fathers” of the USA. Perhaps one of the most grand is the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the Mall, designed in the style of a classical Greek temple with the statue of Lincoln facing the capital and overlooking the reflecting pool.
Located just to the side of the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, is in stark contrast in its simplicity and yet it is a poignant memorial to the men and women who died in that conflict or who remain missing. Fifty eight thousand names are carved into the black granite stone, and lying at the foot of the wall are some personal tokens of remembrance placed by veterans and their families. Poems, photos, letters and pins making this one of the most moving memorials we have seen. Later two memorials that are more conventional were added, a statue of three soldiers and a statue to the women who nursed the wounded and dying in Vietnam.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is located on the other side of the Lincoln Memorial. We arrived at sunset and the large steely soldiers appeared ghostly marching across a field all wearing heavy rain jackets, one could feel their struggle. Alongside the statues is a granite wall etched with faces and scenes from the conflict.
The World War 11 memorial stands at the other end of the reflecting pool. With the sun setting, the Washington memorial was reflecting in the pool of the WW11 memorial. Quotes are inscribed all over the memorial and I thought of my dad who fought in this terrible war.
The White House
We knew we were not going to get a tour of the White House nor were we ever likely to get an invite to visit, so we headed for the White House Information Center to watch a video tour of the home of every President of the USA except President Washington.
The 1600 Pennsylvania address is the most famous address in the USA and has been the scene of many historical events of this nation. I thought I found the doorbell but nobody answered when I rang it.
Arlington National Cemetery is located across the Potomac River in Virginia where over 320,000 service members and women and their family members are laid to rest. There are veterans from every war the USA has been involved in.
The cemetery is 624 acres so we took a bus tour, as it was too far to walk. Our first stop was the site where the President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie are buried. It is an understated site with rocks and an eternal flame, which was lit by his wife Jackie at the time of his burial. It seemed a stark contrast to so many other memorials we had seen such as Lincoln or Washington or those at Gettysburg.
While at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a military funeral procession past by us. An honour guard accompanied the American draped coffin drawn by matched horses. A band playing a march led the dignified and solemn procession, a sombre reminder to us that the wars continue. This is a cemetery steeped in history, human suffering and sacrifice.
One of the most interesting facts is that Smithsonian Museum complex was began with a bequest in 1826 from James Smithson a British scientist, who actually never made it to America while alive. It is a mystery as to why he stipulated that his estate go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
After his death, his body was moved later, to the USA where he now lies in a crypt at the Smithsonian Castle.
American History Museum
One of the most fascinating exhibits at the American History Museum was the Julia Child’s kitchen, although I am not a good cook, I do love people who can create delicious dishes. (Tom does most of the cooking when we travel, perhaps because he also seems to be hungry and if I wait long enough he starts making supper). Julia must have been an amazing women as well as an amazing cook and she had every single cooking utensil you can imagine.
I loved seeing Kermit the Frog from Sesame Street, happy memories of watching that show with my children. The Star Spangled Banner made in 1814 and which inspired the national anthem hung in all its glory.
At the National Museum of Natural History, we were treated to a 3D movie on the sea creatures off the coast of South Africa. It was fantastic, it inspired us to get out there, and Scuba dive again as soon as we can. We marvelled at the Hope diamond from South Africa and were stunned to read it was mailed to the USA in regular post, wrapped in plain brown paper.
National Air and Space Museum, boy how air travel has changed. Looking at the cockpits before there were so many computers, when the traveling by air was a “big deal” and all your family arrived at the airport to see you off or return from a great adventure. Now days airports are long line-ups, security checks, luggage galore, and definitely no visiting the pilot in the cockpit. If you are old, enough to remember when one could go and meet the pilot. The size of the first space suits, they seemed so small. Were only small persons chosen to go into space? Hey, I could have been a spacewomen in my younger days, another career I missed.
There are times in my life when I wonder about our sanity. Who in their sane mind sells their house and all their possessions and drives across the Americas? So it seemed appropriate that we attend the rally organized by Jon Stewart and Steve Colburn in Washington on October 30. The Rally to Restore Sanity (Stewart) or Keep the Fear Alive (Colburn. We thought perhaps we could learn a thing or two about ourselves and all the other ordinary folk who would attend.
Of course Jon Stewart wasn’t concerned about our sanity he was concerned about the sanity of Americans. While students across the world fight for freedom, students in America fight to be on a reality TV show. Their obsession with Hollywood stars and politician’s bedroom antics are headline news, who has been arrested for DUI or having another affair. The Americans who make the news, those burning the Koran, inciting hate and participating in other mindless activities are in the minority. Ordinary American citizens are just working hard to make ends meet, get their children through school and save for retirement. It was time for the majority of Americans to have a voice and so the rally was organized for them.
We got up early and headed for the Metro subway by bus. The Metro station was packed with people, 100s in the line up for tickets. The ticket line stretched around the block. Fortunately we already had tickets so headed directly for the train. OMG I had only seen such packed trains in Africa or in movies where one sees pushers pushing people in to ensure no gets left behind. Many people were actually left behind to wait for the next train. Aboard the train there was a festive atmosphere, people joking, chatting and sharing, hand made posters being held up high. The train moved slowly stopping at times, I suspect to deal with the congestion on the tracks.
Arriving at the metro station at the Washington Mall was a sight to see. 10,000 people trying to make their way up the escalators and out the turnstiles. It was chaos but people were polite, helping each other over stuck turnstiles, helping free stuck backpacks, kids and strollers. Once outside it was a sea of humanity. The rally was to take place between 3rd and 7th Ave but people were packed in from 3rd to 15th Ave, and the day broke the record for the most people ever in the Washington Mall and we were there.
Metro officials stated that Saturday’s ridership also broke the record and set a new one of 825,437 trips taken and that does not include all those clambering over the turnstiles in the crush. There were 4 injuries when one escalator sped up and people fell at the bottom and we rode the metro on that day.
There were 152 porta potties; I am talking about a mile on each side of the Mall of porta potties which soon became viewing spots for many as they clambered up onto the top of the porta potties. Trees which could climbed up were climbed. People who bought a rug to sit on gave up as all the space you had was the size of your shoe. Yet the crowd was well behaved and the party had not even begun.
I saw an opening and made a move and quickly leapt onto a bench which gave me a view over the top of the crowd. I was stunned as far as my eyes could see in all directions were people. Someone handed me binoculars but even with them I could not see the end of the crowd. It is estimated between 200,000 -300,000 people were crammed into the Mall.
Finally noon arrived and the show began with the band Roots entertaining the crowds.
The Myth Busters entertained the crowd by having the crowd do the wave, saying they wanted to break a record for the world’s largest human wave. I watched from above and could not see the beginning of the wave, then I was surrounded by arms in the air and the wave continued until out of sight. Then it was time for the commands, to cry, to laugh, and to cheek pop and with 100,000’s of people all participating I wondered if this was the sanity Jon Stewart was talking about.
Finally Jon Stewart and Steve Colburn were on the stage, the crowd roared their approval. We were entertained by the comedians, who brought on singers and entertainers to add to the acts and shows. Oh yea Jon Stewart stick to your day job don’t ever consider giving it up to become a singer.
Finally after 3 hours it was time to head home. The crowd attempted to disentangle itself, but the crush of people meant a slow, slow walk as blocking the exit from the Washington Mall were the 152 porta potties!! People squeezing through the breaks between the porta potties, nobody yet had lost their sense of humour but all had lost their aim to be home in time for supper.
The metro ride home was just as packed and crowded and after 3 hours of trying to get onto a train some were beginning to loose their sanity but most took it all in good stride.
It was an amazing day and one that we will never forget.