Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

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The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Hello Panda: Beijing Zoo

After my first night in Beijing, I still had a full day before meeting my tour group at the hotel in the afternoon. I knew that once I met up with them, most of us would want to do the major things in Beijing such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so I decided to find something else to do that might not as be as popular among the group. After collecting a city map from hotel reception and studying a guide to the Beijing subway system, I discovered that there was a station not too far from the hotel, and also one located right next to the Beijing Zoo. Figuring it would be a quick and easy expedition to manage by myself, I set out into the streets again to tackle Beijing in the daylight.

***

Getting to the first station was a mission in itself. I thought I was going the right way, following the major roads, but I ended up at Wangfujing Station, which was in the complete opposite direction from my desired destination of Tiananmen East Station. It was only one stop difference, so I just considered myself lucky I’d found a station at all and descended into the underground subway system. Every entrance point has a security check and bag scanning conveyor belt, just like going through customs at an airport. When I finally made it down into the station, I tried to buy a ticket to Beijing Zoo Station. It took my a while to realise the fare for the subway was just 2 yuan – less than a dollar – no matter where you were going. The train system was also clean, fast and efficient, much like the public transport I’d used in Bangkok and Singapore, and I found myself internally cursing Sydney for still not lifting its game. I had one stop to transfer to a different line, but soon enough I had arrived at the zoo.

Given that I was in China, it was very clear as to what was the major attraction at the Beijing Zoo. On top the entrance fee into the zoo, there is an additional charge for admittance into the Panda House – the exhibit that in home to the zoos five panda bears. Once you make your way past the billboards of panda history – of which the English translation was almost too painful to read – and the scores of iconic panda merchandise, you can actually get a glimpse of the animals. I have to admit they are cute, and their colouring definitely lends them a cuter appearance and reputation that almost all other bears lack. Yet like most animals in zoos, they didn’t do a great deal. Even wild pandas are known for being particularly lazy, so I wasn’t surprised to find that all the pandas were either sitting by themselves, chewing away on bamboo, or sleeping. All around me were crowds of Chinese tourists, squealing with excitement and posing for photos with the pandas in the background, and while I appreciated the rare sight, I didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm. After all, for all that the bear was doing, it could have easily swapped places with me in a day in my life back home, and I don’t think anyone would have really noticed.

Eating panda.

Eating panda.

Sleeping panda.

Sleeping panda.

***

The rest of the zoo was, to be completely honest, quite depressing. There were some nice sculptures and some beautiful scenery, but on the whole the zoo was quite dirty. A lot of the animals exhibits looked quite inadequate too. While the pandas were treated to luscious floral fields, I found wolves who were living in no more than a red dirt landscape with a few burrow holes, and no real space to run around. One on the two pools in the polar bear exhibit was a foul green colour, though one of the bears did put on a bit of a show swimming around in the other, less filthy body of water. The highlight of the whole complex was probably the aquarium – obviously newly built, and incurring another entrance fee of its own. It provided the chance to get particularly close to some of the marine animals, though again I wondered if there was adequate space for some of them – four turtles circled around a small, shallow rock pool, seemingly trying to mount the rocky walls and escape. There was also a show with the beluga whales and bottle nose dolphins, and though I couldn’t understand any of the commentary, I watched and enjoyed the tricks that they performed, including synchronised jumping, and one of the animal trainers riding a dolphin like a surfboard.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it's exhibit.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it’s exhibit.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

***

I’ve never known how I really feel about zoos. I know they play important roles in the conversation of endangered species, but I sometimes feel great sympathy for the poor animals locked away inside less than adequate exhibits. When I visited the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo last year, I learnt that some of the animals that won’t breed are castrated to keep them under control. I was horrified – I pictured some science fiction scenario in which humans were the animals in a zoo, and myself being castrated because I refused to mate with the other female “animals”. I found it a little disturbing, and have ever since found it hard to pinpoint where zoos stand on my moral compass. Pandas might be content to sit around and eat and sleep, but my heart goes out to those captive wolves, locked in a glass box when they should be running free in the wild.