Friday, 17 April 2015


I guess I should start with Washington. I'm looking at the pictures I took on my phone now, trying to piece it all together. The talks, the meetings, the awesome tour where we learned the origin of words like "lobbying" and why the Washington Monument is in two tones. And how the Blair House came about (it involves Winston Churchill walking around in his nightgown, smoking his awful cigars, and running into the very proper Eleanor Roosevelt in one of his night wanderings).

I arrived in Washington after more than a combined 24 hours of flying. That was still OK. What was not was how long it took, firstly to get to immigration, and secondly, to clear it. Two hours! There were some English girls standing behind me, chatting. They were pretty empty-headed (their talk running to boys and babies, not to mention fashion) so I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversation.

Then a taxi with a nice Ethiopian driver who took me on the long leisurely ride (the airport was really far from the hotel) and guess what, the customs officers had broken one of my bags although I had used an approved TSA lock. Sharon had warned me that that could happen as it had in her case. But it was still unpleasant. Nothing was taken, however.

When I got to the hotel, I met two of our liaison officers (there were three in all) who would be looking after us for the duration of the three weeks, Norman and Phyllinda (we called her Linda for short). We arrived on a Saturday and had to go look for food on our own.

I discovered a nice fish place at the back of the hotel (it was Lent so I was not eating meat at the time). Or drinking, for that matter.

The next morning we were due to go for a tour of Washington. Our tour "guide" turned out to be a volunteer who was actually working at the Kuwait Embassy (I'm sorry now that I didn't take a picture of her, she was something else!). First stop; the White House. People were standing outside the park and looking across at very fierce female policemen guarding it and keeping people out. Turned out that the Afghan president was paying Obama a visit. It had been even worse when it was Putin. Worse because Obama had not wanted him to visit but Congress had approved it and he had no choice, and also worse because of the security required when that unpopular head of state came a-calling.

But we waited around in the gusty wind, hands in pockets, while our guide (I can't remember her name but although she was an expert on US history and all the little quirks around there, she had a European accent) told us about the origin of Blair House. Seems that Churchill had trouble with insomnia. And he was put in the Rose Room, which a little girl might enjoy but not a man's man who smoke cigars unapologetically (sometimes dear boy, a cigar is just a cigar), polished off his food like a solid trencherman (by contrast, I heard that Hitler was actually a vegetarian). Anyway, he took to pacing up and down the White House corridors in his nightgown, where Eleanor Roosevelt, a very proper lady, encountered him, in his nightgown. Now, this was either in the lead up to WW2 or it was during that conflict. So there was no choice but Churchill would keep visiting). Eleanor convinced her husband to buy Blair House across the street and put that recalcitrant, insomniac Englishman there.

And so, here's a picture of Blair House:

And here's the White House. It is a pretty modest size. Most of the group were surprised at how small it was. In fact, it hadn't become the "white" house until after Teddy Roosevelt who painted it white. At least I think it was Teddy. Am beginning to forget what our guide told us. (This is why these posts should be done immediately and not four weeks later).

After the White House we went to the Willard Intercontinental Washington where the term "lobbyists" comes from. Apparently, Ulysses S. Grant used to flee to the hotel to escape an unpleasant domestic situation which involved his father-in-law, and people got to know about it. So they would come to the hotel in hopes of schmoozing with him in the lobby, trying to gain special favour and turn him to their point of view on something or other. And thus the term "lobbying" was born.

Everyone was especially fascinated by this story. But then, we were fascinated by all her stories.

After that it was a trip to Capitol Hill where she explained how the US government was run. And then to the Lincoln Monumnet where there are many secrets. Like this face at the back of Lincoln's head which is apparently Robert E. Lee, the vanquished foe.

After the tour, I asked to be let off to go see Washington museums. I figured it would be the only day I would get to see the museums (after our meetings for the day it would either be too late or I would be too tired to go, and I was right). Alberto (from Spain) decided to come with me. And that is how I got to know him. We had lunch at a cafe in one the museums and decided to start with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It was wonderful, especially the gift shop, where I decided to get a children's book for my friend Katherine's son (I thought it would be way cooler than getting him a generic children's book from someplace else and it was - when she received it she read him the story twice in the 15 minutes and he wanted to know all about the raven and the sun...well, you get the picture)

Here are some shots from the Washington museums:

A rainbow caught unawares...

A prevalent theme:

We also went to the Museum of Air and Space (Alberto wanted to catch the Wrights' exhibit)...and I enjoyed that too...but this was the only picture I took there.

And the Hirshhorn which was full of art exhibits - and we went through the "Days of Endless Time" exhibit which was ethereal to say the least. I didn't take any pictures though, because we were not allowed. Alberto was a little impatient (when they say endless time, they mean endless time)...and then we took a cab back to the hotel (although Alberto would have rather walked and taken in the architecture) because I was way too tired with all the walking.

Washington was where jet lag was at its a lot of the times, we got back to the hotel and I would intend to take a nap and wake up to find it was the wee hours of the morning.

The meetings were interesting and somewhat contentious. Some of the people on our trip (like Alberto) were actual trade negotiators and would not let something slip past that they thought was erroneous). Others were really sarcastic economists (how come our economists in Malaysia are not like that?).

Anyway, the first five days (we were five days in Washington) went by. And Washington stands out as the only state where I never made it to a bookstore. It didn't matter...New York was next and Emily had sent me a list of bookstores to visit.

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