Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

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Land of the Free: paying a visit to the lady of Liberty Island

My time in New York was a pretty healthy balance of tourist activities, slightly less touristic and more local activities, and things that were relatively mundane. Having just moved into Melissa’s apartment with her, we did things like grocery shopping and, once the girls who had previously lived there came to pick up their stuff, we even had to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy a couple of blow up mattresses. Melissa had her own bed that would be coming soon, plus a couch and a wardrobe and all those kinds of homely things, but there was a period between “out with the old” and “in with the new” that we found ourselves living in a pretty bare studio apartment. It was kinda fun, though – like a slumber party or something. I also had to take care of some administrative issues: getting into the country had been a large hurdle that I’d overcome, but while booking my flights to Brazil I realised that I was going to need a visa before I headed down south. As it happened, the Brazilian Consulate in New York was literally a few blocks away from Melissa’s new apartment, so after printing off and filling out all the forms I got up early one morning to stand in line and file my application. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to be without your passport in a foreign country, but there was no other way I was going to get the visa, so it had to be done. I had also got in touch with Fautso in São Paulo, who had agreed to let me stay with him, so that had all turned out pretty much perfectly.

***

The first really touristic thing I did, however, was visit the Statue of Liberty. As it would happen, a friend of mine named Lexi was actually in the city at the same time, visiting her family who lived out on Long Island. Melissa was mostly busy with school, and I would never want to be the person to drag her out to see all the sights that she’d probably seen at least a dozen times before, so it been perfect timing when Lexi had got in touch and asked if I wanted to see some of the sights with her. We’d agreed on the Statue of Liberty, although we were a little disappointed to find out that tours that take you right up to the crown of the statue were booked out up until November, but we were still able to book a regular visit to the island in a decent time frame. In retrospect, we were actually quite lucky – soon after my arrival in New York, the government shutdown happened, and all government run attractions and activities, such as the Statue of Liberty, were closed. If we had put off our visit by any more than a week, I probably would never have made it there, since the shutdown was in effect until the day after I left New York City for the final time.

So after meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library, on a slightly humid and muggy morning, Lexi and I set off down Manhattan and took the subway to Battery Park, from where the ferries to Liberty Island departed. All around the dock there were street workers dressed up as the statue, selling toys and other tourist trinkets, and posing for photos. When we finally boarded the ferry, Lexi and I found a good spot to sit to get some good photographs as we approached the island, and we sat around and chatted. We weren’t exactly close friends, but I’d been to my fair share of parties with her during my adolescence, so we had a small collection of hilarious mutual memories, and our conversations always proved amusing. As we crossed New York Harbour and approached the island, the passengers from the ferry began to stir, moving around to get the best lighting on their photos of Lady Liberty. I remember my first thought actually being, Wow… it’s not actually that big. As impressive and iconic as the structure appears visually, it is minuscule compared to all the skyscrapers that had surrounded me for the past few days in Manhattan. The sculpture itself stands 46 metres tall, but the pedestal on which it stands is almost the same height, making the entire structure 93 metres tall from torch tip to ground. Which is big, I guess, but I had been in Manhattan for a little while now.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

When we arrived, every passenger was given a free audio tour, and we learnt more about the structure as we made our way around the island. The Statue of Liberty is actually a representation of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. It’s a symbol of freedom that now sits in the harbour, supposedly welcoming immigrants arriving from abroad. For the temporary foreigners, though, it really just screams “Photo op!”
And we were no exception.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

And of course, a selfie.

And of course, a selfie.

After we’d finished being tourists outside, we headed inside… to be tourists again. We had tickets that allowed us to go up to the pedestal level, just below the feet of the statue. It was still almost 50 metres high, and since were in the middle of the harbour, it afforded us some nice views. Or would have, if the weather had been a little bit better. Gazing over the harbour from our vantage point, Manhattan appeared to be covered in a smoggy haze. It looked odd, and almost reminded me of the smog and air pollution in Beijing, but then I figured that that is probably pretty normal for such a massive city. It was a pretty overcast day, but I couldn’t put the poor of visibility down to simple fog or low clouds.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

We also wandered around the exhibitions, learning more about the history and soaking it all in. One thing that was particularly intense was the security measures that were in place inside the actual structure. Our bags were screened and X-rayed on the way in, and then we had to check them into lockers anyway before we were allowed to head up. At first thought I suppose it seems a little excessive, but I think the idea of freedom that the Statue of Liberty embodies is tied quite closely to the American military, who fight to protect that freedom, I guess. So with that in mind, the security procedures just some across as some ordinary military protocol.

***

After eventually getting the ferry back to Manhattan, Lexi and I were wandering through Downtown Manhattan and looking for a place to eat lunch when we strolled quite close to the Freedom Tower, the new building that stood near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre buildings had stood prior to September 11th, 2001. It was only at that point, passing the site of such recent historical significance, did I realise that the date that day was September 10th. I had hoped that I might have gotten a glimpse of the memorial site that afternoon, but the entire place was on lockdown as they were preparing for the anniversary memorial service that would take place the following day.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

I’d thought about going down to the memorial the next day – the fact that I happened to be in New York City on the twelve year anniversary of that tragic event felt like a sign at first. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that maybe it wasn’t really my place to attend such an event. The last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a ceremony by attending it for such novel, touristic purposes. Not that I would have ever treated it that way, to be sure, but at the same time I felt that it would be a moment that was for Americans, and I should leave it to them.
“It’s a pretty significant day for New Yorkers,” Melissa had told me when we discussed the topic later. “I mean, for all Americans, but particularly in the psyche of New Yorkers, and people from around here, ya know? Almost everyone knows someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was affected by what happened.” Upon reflection, even as a nine-year-old, I remember exactly what I was doing when I learned the news about the 9/11 attacks, and I was on the other side of the world, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the tragedy first hand.

So all in all it was a day full of American patriotism and reflecting on symbols of their national pride, and knowing when and when not to be a tourist. I’m not sure what I did on September 11th – possibly went to the movies? – but it was something low key and local, while I left the real locals to their memorial and their prayers.