9.28.2007

Indian on a Chinese tour bus around America -1

That title reeks of globalization. You know what else it reeks of? Chinese opportunism and innovation. One of the most popular tour bus site for an America dekho is gotobus and this is manned totally by Chinese down to the pick up and drop spots. They are all centered around a China Town or a Chinese super market. They even stop at Chinese restaurants for lunch even if there is one Chinese lady tourist on the bus and the rest are all gullible Indians. The guides are bilingual (or so they like to believe). They speak Chinese and Chinglish and at least one of them says Pepsi instead of Cheese. Makes sense I say. I would prefer saying Paneer while posing for photos. The main reason why this tour company is so popular is because it fits into scanty leave and stingy wallet and still shows a lot. Who should know better than I who has taken two such trips and have another planned around the corner.
The first trip was the Phily-DC-Balti trip as I like to call it.
Somehow our tour guide was convinced that the only thing to see in Philadelphia was a huge un-ringable bell with a half inch crack running through its length. He might be right if he had said that’s the main thing to see.
It has a huge historic significance with respect to the American stands for independence, abolition of slavery and freedom. I was a little in awe when I actually saw how huge it was. I could also feel the emotions running high, among the American revolutionaries, to protect the symbol from falling into British hands.
Before we reached the bell museum, I got excited about spotting the offices of Rohm & Haas, a customer for one of the products we develop in my company. So while the family waited for a group photo, the photographer (me) had run away and was shooting this obscure building of a company they had never heard of.
After seeing the bell there was a lot of excitement as, is common among happy tourists, upon spotting horse drawn carriages! So we took a lot of happy pictures with those handsome steeds and some prettily done up mares as our backgrounds. Being in them would have meant a cool fifty dollar hole in the pocket.
Walked around the city hall and thats when we saw a duck tour which is very popular and a practical way to "see" a city. A "Duck" is a vehicle which acts as a bus on land and a boat in water. How cool is that? So you just hop onto it and go around a city, hop off at any place that you want to spend time at, hop on the next one and go on. It’s a pretty neat way to see a city (touristy parts) if you are really short on time. Philadelphia is a very good looking city and the people seem to be very friendly. At least I think so because a lady told me she loved the kurti top I was wearing. Well she did say it after I appreciated the braided tail of the horse which was pulling her carriage but nevertheless. The next stop was Washington DC. The capital city. My first impression - ho hum. Well manicured flat city. The only thing you keep spotting between buildings and trees is a white obelisk called the Washington Monument built to immortalize the first president of the States. Our first stop was the Smithsonian Institutions. There were two on our agenda and the first one was the National Air and Space Museum. The funniest part of this was the "Moon Rock" touching. The "rock" which was really a pebble was placed right at the entrance much like the Dwarapalakas in any temple, you take their Darshan and then go towards the God. I even saw some people close their eyes and pray/wish while they touched the pebble. The guide did tell us that there was a Chinese saying that touching it brings good luck.
Once inside the air and space museum all you see and read is about airplanes and satellites. There are a lot of airplanes suspended from the roof. It is a little nerve wracking if one’s mind goes on a trip of the cords loosening up and the planes crashing down.
There is also a lot of information about space shuttles, their training and simulators. We only had enough time to take a deep breath and glance around once. In the planet section we noted that Pluto has been banished. We saw space suits and fighter pilot gear in another section.
But the highlight for me was the Wright Brothers' room. I was excited to read all about how they started.
One of the four bicycles they designed and built is displayed there. A model of the aircraft they built is also displayed. And can you imagine the pilot had to lie down on his stomach to pilot that one. Orville and Wilbur Wright, geniuses.
From the air and space museum we went on to the Natural History Museum.
The first pit stop was at the Hope Diamond. This gorgeous big blue diamond set in a necklace of smaller diamonds was originally from India! Natural blue diamonds are rare and expensive.
I was in shock when I heard from my dad that my grandmother has it in her nose ring and was nearly dizzy when my mom said she had a couple, that her mother gave her, in her earrings. That’s a page of expensive family history!Suddenly, the 3-diamonds’ ring that T gave me for our last wedding anniversary looked pale. T did not have a clue why he got a dirty look from me and went on pulling me away from the rest of the glitterati spread which wouldn’t let my jaws close shut.
We went through the section of the quartz, crystal, gold, copper, opal and other natural materials that the earth throws up to us. We then went through the Dinosaur section which was so poorly lit that we couldn’t take any good pictures with our small digital cameras. I do remember squinting at the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Does light affect those old bones? We went through a section with a lot of animal models on display. My favorite was the lion perched near the roof, proud, very proud.I took my revenge on T by making him stand beside the giraffe and taking a picture. At the end of the hall we had a surprise awaiting us. There was a whole section dedicated to Sikh religion. Displays about the aspects of the religion including the five Ks that Sikh men always have to carry. Plus a beautiful model of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. But the star of the show is the huge mammoth in the entrance hall of the museum. I think he gets photographed the most!
By the time we finished with museums sunset was approaching fast. Our guide, ever the enthusiast, made us believe that that was the best time to photograph some monuments around DC.So our next stop was the Capitol, the seat of the US government for the Congress. This is where they decide to wage wars on or withhold grants to some country. We got a beautiful view of this pristine building and its grounds, in the setting sun's rays, giving it a very luscious cream tint.
Why I will always cherish this picture in my mind is because of the picture that we took in front of it, that looks like a lovely vintage eastman color photo.
Next stop was the White House. While it looked prim and propah it generally failed to impress me. It feels too small to be a presidential house, no? We got to see only the front view. Maybe its elongated? I have heard that the interior is more impressive but we did not know that we had to book a week in advance for an inside tour due to security reasons. The photo in front of the tall iron grill, which stood in between the White House and us, looks a little ugly too. Anyways the whole experience fell a little flat. What was more interesting was the protestors against war in front of democracy, way to go! And off we go to the Jefferson Memorial. By now the light was much faded and the monuments have such low lights that it became tough for us to take pictures. But the view from the memorial steps was breathtaking. The lake in front of the memorial glowing with the reflections of lights shining all around it was beautiful. Planes whizzing by, thanks to the nearby airport. Sitting there on the steps we spent some of the most relaxing moments on that trip. Cool breeze, breezy talk and wafting laughter. Precious! But, we had one eye always trained on the watch dial and it was soon to board the bus to take us to Lincoln memorial.
How majestic looks the statue of Abe Lincoln all in white against the low lit interiors of the memorial. We have all grown up hearing about his honesty stories and it was very humbling to even behold his larger than life statue. The view of the Washington Monument is best from the Lincoln memorial as it is right across.
We visited the Vietnam War Memorial. The names of all the American soldiers, who lost their lives for their country, are etched on a very long glass wall. The Korean War Memorial on the other hand has lifelike statues of soldiers in battle gear. A wall runs alongside with the photos of the soldiers who lost their lives in that war. With this our day also came to an end and we were taken on what would become a never ending search for a restaurant. Since it was late and all the restaurants were closed we were finally taken to an all-night convenience store where we couldn’t find anything apart from water and chips. Thankfully we were very resourceful in packing a lot of chapatis from home which lasted us through every meal of the journey. Chinese restaurant or Pizzeria it was no problem for us. Woo-hoo!
After a good night's rest we faced a day of long drives. We were off to Baltimore from DC. On the way we arrived at Shenandoah Caverns. The caverns were formed when water trickled through tiny cracks in the stone, dissolving the lime, enlarging the cracks. The cracks became crevices, then channels, and finally, tunnels (this is straight from the website). There are lots of formations to see and many to imagine. Like the crystal cascade. That’s just limestone and a lot of color lights focused on it.

Then there is the bacon formation which doesn’t make sense to us vegetarians. The highlight of the caverns is the Rainbow Lake. The formations are lit up with colorful lights and the reflection of this in the water, which always collects in that place, makes it amazing.
We had a lot of fun finding niches to take funky photographs in. Imagining a lot of the formations was also fun. From the caverns we drove to Baltimore and what awaited us there by 2 in the afternoon was a nice cutesy water front and a boat ride.The boat ride was pretty boring. It seemed like the announcer had had a bad day because he was so jaded in his speech that most of us did not register what he was saying or which piece of the surrounding he was referring to. It was extremely sunny nevertheless we enjoyed the breezy boat ride.
Most Indian couples were going for the Titanic pose pictures. What was I doing in the meanwhile? I was realizing that too many people on that boat wore clean stark white sports shoes! I think many of us also stared at the whizzing motor boats and their occupants with a tinge of jealousy.
I had imagined that we would be taken aboard a ship and would be allowed to look around. Hadn't bargained for this fare. Once we got off the boat we had to grab lunch and eat in a matter of one hour. The water front was full and by the time we got some subway sandwiches from the grumpy and arrogant girl at the counter it was nearly time to leave. Plus she wanted me to tell the name of the cheese I wanted. I would have but I got daunted with her attitude and told her that I would only point and not tell the name. Lame, I know. She also got her small revenge when she told me that the yoghurt that I wanted with the meal was over. Even now I think she had many in her fridge but was just too crazily angry to hand it over.
So after gobbling down lunch we were back on the bus and drove the long way back to New Jersey. Catching up on sleep was the main agenda apart from waiting for coffee breaks and endless chips. It was a fantastic trip. For me it was double the excitement because my parents, brother and sister-in-law came with us (T, his parents and me).
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