Driving to our hotel from the airport, Supriya turned to me and said, “You told me you were bringing me to the States, but look outside, you’ve got me to Chandigarh.” She was being facetious. Her smile was a dead giveaway. I could see Supriya’s point, though. Like Chandigarh, Washington, D.C.’s streets were spotless, its parks manicured. Only monuments and government buildings were more conspicuous here.
“More Delhi than Chandigarh, no?” I asked gingerly. Capitals, I argued, all resembled each other. The architecture was stately. Even if their leaders didn’t have towering personalities, their buildings did. Though she was the photographer, I did take to Instagram more often. I was at a geopolitical epicentre.
The next morning, sitting atop a double-decker tour bus, I felt peeved. “I am not a tourist”, I wanted to moan sanctimoniously. The view, perhaps expectedly, placated me. As we passed the Washington Monument, the White House and the F.B.I.’s headquarters, I looked on with some marvel. Neither CNN nor popular culture had done them adequate justice. Ron Wright, our 69-year-old guide, quacked when he saw ducks, and grew more excited when he saw a convoy. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the President of the United States,” he said, pointing to a passing motorcade. Sadly, Ron was quick to puncture the momentousness of the occasion: “There was no ambulance at the back. That wasn’t him.”
Suddenly, Ron looked up from his handkerchief and said into his mike, “The thing about Washington City is that it is a made-up place.” The Washingtonian, it turned out, was too proud to be pejorative. He was simply stating fact. It was only on July 16, 1790, that the Resident Act approved its creation. Unlike other great cities of the world, Washington was something of an afterthought. Later that afternoon, Supriya and I decided to visit the U.S. Capitol. We wanted an inside view. Tom Fontana, director of communications at the Capitol’s Visitor Center, met us outside. “The senators left at 2.30 a.m. Be prepared to see very bleary-eyed folk,” he said, moving quickly through the Center’s lobby.
Tom had a story to tell about every corner of the Capitol, even the restroom. “A few days ago, a father and son went in there, and the son looked at all the marble and asked, ‘Where are we?’ The father declared, ‘This is our Capitol, son.’ That’s the kind of loyalty this place inspires.” As Tom walked us through to the Capitol’s separate wings, he spoke at breakneck speed. We had only a few seconds to gawk at the building’s statues and at frescoes which rivalled that of Sistine Chapel’s. Standing on the balcony where U.S. Presidents are sworn in, Tom said, “Every four years, this is where it all begins.” Our guide, we soon realised, was not altogether immune to irony. In the lobby of the Visitor Center, we stopped to see a replica of the Statue of Freedom that sits on top of the Capitol’s dome. After holding forth about its significance, Tom leaned in and whispered, “The Statue of Freedom was built by a slave.”
Both Supriya and I often looked beyond museums when travelling. Culture, we agreed, is usually found in an elsewhere that isn’t curated or air-conditioned. D.C.’s museums, however, told their compelling stories in buildings that were seductive, even from afar. For instance, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) proved hard to miss. Its pagoda-like structure was quirky, though not out of place. Much like the 10 other Smithsonian museums on the Mall, the National Museum of American History did not charge its visitors, but unlike its somewhat imposing neighbours, it also did something altogether spectacular. On the museum’s first level, you feel sucker punched. Exhibits and installations take you back to the 1400s, to ships and plantations where African slaves were beaten, exploited, even killed. You see train carriages that were segregated and stone blocks where men and women were auctioned. The edges of history have not been smoothed here. They have been sharpened.
Other levels were cheerier. We found Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, author James Baldwin’s inkwell and a floral yellow dress that civil rights activist Rosa Parks had sewed. Refreshingly, the NMAAHC was also in the habit of talking back. Located on the second floor of the museum, the Robert Frederick Smith ‘Explore Your Family History’ Center used photographs, oral histories and artefacts to draw connections between American history and the stories of black families and communities. The Center’s digital archives and genealogical research made the NMAAHC experience both interactive and deeply personal. Few museums addressed so directly the fissures of society. I heard a guide say, “African American history is American history.” My own deductions were similar. American history is African American first.
America, it must be said, does know how to come together. At Newseum, a museum that traces the evolution of news media and communication, the 9/11 Gallery housed the broadcast antennae from the top of the World Trade Centre. Watching a 9/11 documentary in the audio-visual theatre, I saw a woman sob. The museum’s effect was visceral. Upholding that journalistic ideal of neutrality, Newseum stopped short of comment. It only documented the past and present. Back at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, however, critique was more conspicuous. For his solo project, “Trace at Hirshhorn”, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had used Lego parts to draw portraits of the world’s dissenters. Until January 1, 2018, at least, D.C. will be a stage for wily theatrics, yes, but it will also see Weiwei’s defiance.
Nate Glusenkamp, a friend I went to college in Britain with, has lived in Washington for nearly a decade. He met us on 7th Street NW, at Rocket Bar. “It’s the real deal,” he told me. The dive bar was suitably dark. It made for a reunion that was unhurried. Nate still wore the baseball cap he did nine years ago, and was over the moon when he heard that Supriya and I had gone to see the Washington Nationals play the Colorado Rockies. “A truly bipartisan experience,” he laughed. Nate and I were in the same room when Barack Obama became President in 2008. We had hugged. Politics was now something we glossed over. “Down with the electoral college, man,” he waved his hand. When we were three drinks down, I asked Nate why he still lived in Washington. “Work, obviously,” he said, “but the city is so walkable. It is easy to get around, and despite being a big city, it feels like a town.” He was not done. “People come to the U.S. and go to Florida, Vegas and New York. We should add D.C. to that list.”
Though Nate had given up smoking, he did light my cigarette. “Where you staying?” he asked. “We’re put up at the W. Hotel.” He was quick to tease and say, “Fancy!” His taunt was warranted. The W. was plush. Called the Washington Hotel from 1917 to 2007, the property moved from being old-world to trendy after a 92-million dollar renovation. From POV, its rooftop bar and restaurant, you got an unhindered view of the White House and the Washington Monument. Elvis stayed here in 1970, and some employees still talk of a secret passageway that gives presidents uninspected entry. “I did hear about that, but I have never seen it,” confessed Marlon Norman, the ‘W. Insider’ at the concierge desk.
Born in Washington, Norman then began to talk of the city with an infectious enthusiasm. “Because it had a majority African American population, D.C. was nicknamed ‘Chocolate City’, but gentrification changed that reputation. If you ask me, some of that was a good thing. Neighbourhoods no one would ever visit are now thriving centres of art and culture.” Norman led us to Blagden Alley. “It was once considered unsafe, but you need to look at it now,” he said. Most buildings in this lane had been painted over with murals. There were cafés, galleries and bars everywhere. One of these, Columbia Bar, was voted 2017’s Best American Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, a yearly New Orleans trade conference.
District Distilling, a combined bar, kitchen and distillery, should perhaps vie for a prize or two of its own.
The littleneck clams and seared scallops here were sumptuous, and the drinks—tasty as they were—did not encourage moderation. CEO Chae Yi was not envious of Columbia’s success: “It only confirms D.C.’s claim of being a culinary destination. The city is historically important, but it’s also contemporary cool.” Yi was born in Korea. He lived in Connecticut as a child, then went to New York for college, spent many years in Vermont and later moved to D.C. “This is the story of many Washingtonians,” he said. “It’s the story of travellers, and I think a lot of travellers like me do eventually find their way to Washington, D.C.”
Having grown up and worked in Delhi, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj first travelled to Washington in 1988. “Washington was only a small Southern town then, but it had no fine dining Indian restaurants, so I opened the Bombay Club, and I have not looked back since,” he said. We met Bajaj on the day the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington was awarding him a lifetime RAMMY for his achievements. Sitting in his restaurant Rasika, Bajaj was talkative. “Things really changed for me after Bill Clinton came to the Bombay Club in 1993. Barack and Michelle Obama ate out a lot too. They even made arugula popular.” Bajaj kindly insisted we eat lunch at his restaurant. Seeing palak chaat on our table, Supriya said, “I told you, Chandigarh!” I laughed. The States would always be my known unknown.
BEN’S CHILLI BOWL
The chilli dogs, milkshakes and half-smokes are essential. Also, Obama ate here.
The crab benedict at this Parisian café in Georgetown would make Napoleon stop.
Located in the remodelled Union Market, Bidwell’s food is organic and delish.
Indian street food—chaat, kebabs, sweets—are given a fine dining twist here.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.
Supriya Kantak poses as a photographer so she can travel. She is happiest at altitudes of 1,000 metres above sea level. She posts on Instagram as @routes_and_shoots.