My red-eye flight from San Diego landed at Dulles, which is miles west of Washington, DC, two hours before sunrise. I’d hoped to take a nap on the plane, but I’d managed to book a flight on the most uncomfortable plane known to man.
When I’d checked in for my flight, I learned I couldn’t check my suitcase through to Dubai. I also found out there wasn’t a place to store my bag in DC, so I was going to be stubborn and roll it around all day. Then, before I boarded, Caitlin told me it was raining.
I started my trip with no sleep, a rolling suitcase, and rain at my destination.
For $5 I took a bus from Dulles 6.3 miles to the start of the metro. There I bought a day pass for about $16, rolled my ugly green suitcase down to the platform, and waited with a growing crowd of people going to work. I was meeting Caitlin at the Metro Center station in the heart of DC, and then we’d ride up to where she was staying to drop off my suitcase and backpack. Unencumbered by luggage, we’d be ready to tackle the day.
My suitcase made me resort to Plan B in both of my layovers. And that broken, spray-painted, decade-old ripped canvas box on wheels, which has gone around the world with me more than once and never gotten lost, helped ensure my time in DC and Dubai went better than planned.
Travel is all about Plan B.
At Caitlin’s I donned my waterproof jacket, water-resistant travel purse, very non-waterproof jeans, and sponge-like running shoes, and then we were off for a full day of DC tourism.
We ate a surprisingly filling breakfast at Busboys and Poets, where I had a Thin Mint Latte (organic mint syrup, chocolate, steamed milk, espresso). I hoped the caffeine would keep me from falling asleep on the metro. And while I’m not a coffee drinker, I drank it happily: syrupy, chocolatey, milky coffee is delicious.
After breakfast we took the metro down to DC proper. Outside of downtown, DC’s full of bright, large graffiti, especially along the metro tracks. Outside of sterile, stuffy downtown, DC has a pretty cool personality.
We emerged from the metro station and re-entered the cold and wet. A ten-minute walk later and we were at the Newseum. This is a museum all about the news, and it has exhibits on some of the biggest news stories in recent memory. It also highlights the dangers facing journalists and photojournalists around the world.
Caitlin had been before, and we didn’t have much time, so she laid out our quick morning visit. We started in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, which showcased photographs dating all the way back to 1942. I was familiar with many of them, and as we rounded the curved walls of the exhibit and looked at the photos, we alternately pointed at ones we recognized and others that caught our attention.
There was one photo, for me, that was particularly chilling. It was taken during the Thammasat University Massacre, and I found it horrifying.
We left the exhibit in the midst of a crowd of schoolchildren. They were being remarkably respectful given the nature of some of the photos, but Cait and I were ready to escape the images.
Next we visited a section of the Berlin Wall—the largest outside of Germany—accompanied by a watch tower. On the free side was colorful graffiti; on the other, with the watch tower, a plain, intimidating concrete barrier.
Up two flights of stairs and we were standing in the shadow of a mangled radio tower from one of the felled World Trade Center towers from New York City. One wall was lined with front pages from newspapers around the world after the attacks.
After several minutes I needed another break, and Cait was emotionally tapped, too. We took our time circling the museum on our way to the last exhibit we wanted to see. A large, stylized world map covered a wall and showed how much freedom the press had in other countries. Accompanying it were glass cases with artifacts from journalists and photojournalists who disappeared or died while on assignment.
From there we walked into an empty, bright room, tall and lit with natural light. Straight ahead was a wall lined with long slats holding row after row of photos. Each photo was of a man or woman who died while reporting the news. At the top were several empty rows waiting to be filled with more photos.
To the left of the photos was a wall of large plaques engraved with the names of people in the photos, plus others. This wall, too, had space for additional names. Both were regularly updated. Tim Hetherington, a brilliant photojournalist I met in 2009 at a screening of Restrepo, was memorialized in this room. There were others I recognized, too.
I was done. Caitlin seemed to be, too. We decided to head downstairs and make our way down the street to a great Indian fast food place that was cheap and warm.
After lunch it was time to brave the rain and walk along the Mall. When we found ourselves in the center of the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, I surveyed the area.
“Is it how you pictured it?” Caitlin asked.
“No. It’s… small? I thought it would be more impressive.”
We approached the Washington Monument, which felt like it was plopped in the middle of an intersection.
It was when we were close—at the base of the monument—that I began to feel more inspired by the Mall.
We could see the Reflecting Pool, a memorial I didn’t know, and the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. The park rangers stationed at the Monument convinced us to get free tickets to go to the top at 4pm. We had two hours to explore before going up.
The memorial we saw that I didn’t recognize was the National WWII Memorial, and we walked toward it from the Monument.
It’s beautiful, even when it’s gloomy and raining.
The Reflecting Pool behind it was long and green, littered with coins. I stuck my GoPro into the water to try to get an interesting shot of either the coins or the passing ducks. Not only were the pictures mediocre, DC security must’ve thought I was a massive idiot.
When you walk up to the Lincoln Memorial, you start to realize its size. As you get closer, you expect it to get larger, but it’s only once you’re at the end of the Pool and at the base of the steps that you really see it. It looks like it’s right against the Pool, but it’s not. You still have a number of steps and wide landings to summit.
It’s big. And in the rain, the ground mirrors the Memorial and its surroundings, though it’s not slick. Then, once you step between the columns and under the roof, President Lincoln is also large, but dwarfed by the cavernous room where he sits.
By this point Cait and I were wet from the waist down, our shoes soaked. We stood under the overhang, looking out toward the Monument. There were so many sights we hadn’t seen, and I definitely wanted to see the White House before I left. But I needed time to dry my jeans and change shoes before checking in for my flight to Dubai.
Setting back out in the rain, we decided to skip going to the top of the Washington Monument. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, a solemn, quiet place—save for the loud Chinese tour guide behind us.
Then we trudged another mile to the White House. It was when we stood in front of the White House that the rain began to let up. In fact, as we walked around to the other side of the House, the rain stopped.
Just in time for us to finish touring the city and get back on the metro.
DC was a great time, even with rain, no sleep, and sore feet. It had been a long, tiring day, and after drying up and taking a ten-minute power nap at Caitlin’s, I was en route to the airport.
Gratefully, on my flight to Dubai, I sat next to a cool girl from Toronto. She and I both slept almost the entirety of the flight, and apparently I didn’t wake her up the two times I kicked her in my sleep. I woke myself up with my leg spasms. It’s a miracle she didn’t feel anything.
The next time I was on land, 13 hours later, it was on the other side of the planet in the United Arab Emirates. It was 8pm, 12 hours later than San Diego, and I was going to stay up all night seeing the city with my friend Nitin.