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Between the 11th and the 16th July, Majida Begum, Monalisa Saha and I went on an unforgettable History and Politics trip to the United States of America: first stop, Washington DC.
On arrival, we orientated ourselves to the new surroundings by going on a walking tour of some of the main sites including the National Mall, Washington monument, Lincoln Memorial and, of course, the White House before sleeping off our jet-lag back at the hotel.
On Tuesday we had a guided tour around the Capitol complex given by the chair of the Congressional Subcommittee on the Environment. We were shown many ‘behind the scenes’ areas including the Rayburn House Building where several Congressmen have their offices. We were even able to sit in on a committee meeting where legislators heard from a number of expert witnesses on the topic of space exploration! Truly inspiring stuff from the country which first put a man on the moon. From here, a number of underground passageways link to the Capitol Building itself. We were led by our tour through this rabbit warren of corridors, interspersed every so often with majestic signs indicating ‘To the Library of Congress’ or ‘To the Senate’. Passing us in the corridors every so often would be smartly dressed men or women sporting shiny gold circular pin badges- the uniform of a Congressman. Here we were in the secret vaults, below the most powerful legislative assembly on the face of the earth- this is certainly the stuff of Dan Brown novels! Emerging on the ‘other side’ we were shown round the main Capitol Rotunda, the Speaker’s Office and even the spot where the then-little-known Congressman Abraham Lincoln had sat.
Although there was still much more to explore, time was short and we had to make our way on to the second appointment of the day at the home of US Military operations: the Pentagon. Our guide gave us a spirited and interesting tour round the building, including visits to the 9/11 memorial and even the Press Briefing room. One of my favourite anecdotes though was provided by the small wooden hut, directly in the centre of the Pentagon’s inner courtyard-garden. Apparently during the Cold War this hut had been under 24-hour Soviet surveillance thanks to the constant stream of high-profile visitors it received each day. Given its location and popularity amongst the American military elite, it was assumed to be a central-intelligence hub of the building and was even at one stage the planned target point for a Soviet nuclear strike. It was not until the reconciliation period post-détente that the Russians discovered the truth- this was in fact nothing more than the favoured lunch hut of the building with a particular reputation for tasty hot dogs! Surely the most vulnerable hot-dog stand in history. In the evening we dropped into Arlington National Cemetery to see the eternal flame which marks the grave of President Kennedy and the ritualistic changing of the Guard ceremony. Our first full day in America was complete.
On Wednesday morning we were up early again for a coffee appointment with EXOP insider Peter Gaumond. We discussed his career role within the President’s top team as well as his views on the Trump-phenomenon. Following this, he was kind enough to give us a walking tour of the perimeter of the White House lawn- pointing out along the way the Oval Office, President’s living quarters, banqueting hall and helipad. After rounding this off with a brief visit to the White House gift shop (which by the way is prepared for all eventualities, with Clinton and Trump mementos alike) we dropped in on two final locations in DC: the Ford Theatre where Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and the National Archives which houses original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Although we were sad to leave the nation’s capital, it was by then time to board our Greyhound bus to New York City. After the frenetic activity of the past few days, we were all quite pleased to have some ‘down time’: 4 hours of wifi access and air conditioning as we sped our way towards the Big Apple.
On arrival in New York and having checked in to our hotel, we decided that the best and most timeless greeting should be to board the Staten Island ferry and see the city as generations of immigrants had done before us: across the water with Downtown Manhatten framed by the magnificent Statue of Liberty. Lights sparkling in the darkness of what was by now late evening, this was truly an unforgettable site.
Thursday morning was spent wandering through the peaceful oasis of Central Park before stopping off in Trump Towers for refreshment. Just after midday we arrived at the United Nations headquarters to be shown around the building at the centre of global efforts for a more humanitarian, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world. The visit- including access to the chambers of the Security Council and General Assembly- was both inspiring and frustrating in equal measure. Following a brief dose of retail therapy at- where else?- Macys, we then hurried back to the hotel to get ready for our big evening out on Broadway. Dressed up in 1920s Gatsby-esque outfits we sang along to the musical classics of Chicago in the Mentor Theatre before taking in the bright neon lights of Time Square to round off the night.
We had arrived at Friday- the final day of our adventure- and following the frivolity of the previous evening it was time to get serious again at New York’s Ivy League University: Columbia. Alma Mater of none other than President Barack Obama himself, Columbia is set on a beautiful campus in North-West Manhattan. We were given a very warm and generous welcome by Professor Samuel Roberts who had kindly invited us along to attend a lecture given by his colleague on the African American experience in twentieth century New York City. I was even introduced to the distinguished audience of academics as ‘Professor Evans’- a mistake which I reluctantly felt bound to correct!
And with that we were off to JFK airport- wondering where the time had gone! On the plane home I reflected on a full and colourful trip with two wonderful travelling companions of irrepressible energy reserves. We had trod the corridors of power, stood at the behind lectern which announced America’s ‘War on Terror’ to the world, studied at the training ground of President Obama… and of course, visited the most vulnerable hot-dog stand in history. But the real impression was made by the people we met along the way and the extraordinary generosity they showed us. Thanks to this wonderful demonstration of that old adage the ‘kindness of strangers’, we certainly had a back-stage access tour of Washington DC and New York City which was well off the tourist trail.