Saturday, 17 November 2012

Washington DC: City of the Free

After a couple of days mooching around my uncle's mansion on the outskirts of Baltimore, slumped in front of age-appropriate films and wholesomely decorating ceramic plates with Sharpie markers, the Leahtard and I waved farewell to my tweenage cousins and headed to Washington DC, the seat of US power and government, and home to some right drunkards.

We arrived the day after the election. The delinquents staggering around the pavements might've simply been going heavy on the juice in relief that Romney didn't win the crown of America's Next Top President and a four year modelling contract with US Weekly. I'm obviously glad he didn't get the Presidency, but it might have been interesting watching him and Count Ryan run the world's most powerful nation into the ground. Interesting like watching the massacre and pillage of a flock of disabled lamb. 

The hostel, DUO Housing, was to the east of town, located on the creatively named 11th Street between 'M' and 'N' Avenue. We arrived to the molten hot, screaming vitirol of the manager who was throwing a tantrum in the common room, enraged that he'd had to stay eight minutes beyond his contacted finish time.  'Honey, youth been here long enoth,' he lisped evilly towards the inexperienced but sweet-looking check-in guy, 'I'm NAATH telling you how to do it again! Oh mah Gaaawth!'
He glared through the bullet-proof glass at our smirking faces, his exposed underbelly quivering beneath his too tight t-shirt. Diva in the house. 

We rushed straight out to Georgetown in west DC on a handy little bus called the Circulator. It has three routes and for $1 a ride will drop you off outside the capital's best photo opp spots. Happy hour seems to be between 4 and 7pm most evenings so we hot-footed it to The Tacklebox which was hawking half-price margaritas and discounted calamari. The end result being gloriously half-cut by 7.03pm.
In DC, more than anywhere else we've visited, there was a veritable plethora of free things to do and places to explore. Finally, America was coming good on her promise of the land of the free.

Here's what we did without spending a cent:

1. Spent an entire day at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Highlights include watching a kindergartener scream 'PANDA!!' while running full-throttle at the enclosure before knocking himself out on the fencing, trying to coax a shy armadillo (crunchy on the outside) out from behind a small rock and watching tiny poisonous frogs rampantly sexing by their leafy lake.

2. Tried to count the bricks on the Washington Monument  then strolled along the infinity pool (which is actually disappointingly shallow) before taking approximately four trillion pictures of Abe Lincoln's face at his famous Memorial. I should add here that we obvo went to the White House, but you can't go in unless you have hand written permission on a length of rare Himalayan goat wool and signed by a member of the Senate.

3. Developed cricks in my neck from staring at the interior of the United States Capitol. Inspired by Sir Christopher Wren's St Paul's, it's where senators and congressmen hang out to mull over and make laws.
The free tour and includes watching a patriotic video  followed by half an hour of trotting through security checked parts of the building with a matronly guide. Ours looked like the old lady in Titanic but without the dodderyness and flagrant disregard for precious stones.

4. Paid our respects at the Arlington National Cemetery, where we also got to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier and gawp at JFK and Jackie O's grave sites.

5. Wistfully stroked planes and space artifacts at the Air and Space Museum in the National Mall.
Packed to the literal rafters with all things aviation related, from the Wright brothers' prototype gliders right through to Appolo mission gizmos, the museum gently takes you by the hand and leads you through the story of flight in America.
The Amelia Earhart section was my personal favourite - the first woman to fly across the Atlantic unaided began her incredible career by constructing a rollercoaster at the age of seven.

The Bureau of Printing and Engraving is also on the freebie list offering tours until 2pm most days where you can hungrily watch green bills being stamped, printed and cut. However, due to our trademark faffery and general unorganised nature, Leah and I arrived at the Bureau at 2.11pm missing the last tour and had to make do with a walkway depicting the history of currency which then led us directly to a gift shop trying to sell $100 in disassembled notes for an intact $5. No.


Although not free, we also managed to squeeze in a trip to another DC institution and landmark on the Man vs Food map, Ben's Chili Bowl.

Ben's serves some legendary chili smothered on all-beef half smoked hot dogs tucked in a sweet brioche bun and escorted to your salivating face in a red plastic basket with either ready salted crinkle-cut crisps or an order of fries.

We sat at the bar so that we could soak up the general hub-bubbery of the cafe, entertained by the employee's secondary school playful jibes and being watched over by the grizzly-but-kind-faced manager.

The chili was spicy - but not violently so - with lots of meaty body (nothing worse than chili with a weak physique) and although aesthetically unpleasing, went down like a dream. If tastebuds could body pop, it would have been like Save the Last Dance in my mouth. 

Such is its popularity, the owners have been forced to open a visitors centre selling general tat and merchandise next door. You're unlikely to get done on prices here - despite allowing Barack Obama and Bill Cosby to eat at Ben's for free FOR LIFE, the total cost of my meal barely touched the $10 barrier.

Washington, teeming with shiny marble, grand museums and historic monuments, was one of the cities where I barely made a dent in my gradually dwindling roll of dollars. And as we trail back inland towards Knoxville, Tennessee and beyond, I'm thankful that my final stop on the east coast was priceless. 

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