Friday, March 31, 2017

Mr. Almeida Goes to Washington (With His Wife--Moi!)

            Why Washington DC? Well, primarily because we were looking for some place close at hand and warmer than Connecticut (ha!) to spend Spring Break. We had last been tourists in our nation’s capital more than 25 years ago (when Llew, Chriselle and I had led my Dad who was visiting from Bombay on a tour of a few north-eastern US cities) and thought the time was ripe to re-discover the rich cultural and historical heritage of our own land. Also, we had a load of friends and relatives (some of whom have emigrated recently to the USA) who had extended frequent offers of hospitality. We thought it would be terrific to spend some quality time with them. So, there we were…Mr. Almeida and his wife would go to Washington!

            Much has changed in our country since we last trod the capital’s touristic pavements. While in the years before the tragedy of 9/11, one could merely line up for entry tickets into the Capitol, the White House or the Pentagon, today, you need no less than three weeks of planning, writing to your own state senator’s office and procuring of timed tickets to enter these hallowed grounds. We felt fortunate that we had done tours of the first two, albeit decades ago. We’d have liked to have gone inside the Pentagon, but there is always something one ought to leave behind for a future trip, right? Well, as it turned out, we found several things we’ll have to do on another trip. Our aim was to try to get to as many places for the first time ever as possible. That way, we’d not feel bored, our touring would not be repetitive and, hopefully, we’d come away learning a lot more about our country and its people than we knew already.

            So, off we went…please join me now on your own armchair travels through Pierre L’Enfant’s beautifully designed city of Washington.

Sat, Mar 11, 2017: New York-Washington

            We left our home in Southport, Connecticut, at exactly 7. 15 am on a quiet Saturday morning and by doing extraordinary time (though not hair-raising speeds), we arrived at our friend Corinne’s place in Lorton, VA, at just after 12 noon—exactly five hours from door to door. Corinne was delighted to see us again after a good ten years at least. Having just moved into a beautiful gated community, she was eager to share her new home with us. We were pleased with our en suite room on the main floor of her house and by the very classy way she has furnished and decorated her space to reflect her taste and interests.

            After a late lunch of Pakistani-style Lamb (Corinne is a Catholic Goan from Karachi and a very old and good friend of Llew) and an endless catch-up on all that has gone on since her recent retirement from the International Monetary Fund where she worked for decades, we decided to go out for Mass. My aim was to attend Mass at the National (Episcopalian) Cathedral which we have visited before. But Corinne suggested the National Basilica (Catholic) of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Washington. She offered to drive us there and since neither of us had been there before, we opted to hear Mass there.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: 

            As we were approaching the basilica, I was struck by its glorious architecture—Byzantine-Gothic in conception, it has humongous proportions. In fact, with its dome and its single minaret, you might well believe you are heading into a mosque. The parking lot was packed when we arrived just as Mass began. We hurried inside and were stunned by the size of the place and the congregation. At least 2,500 people can be seated in its pews with several hundred more standees. Mass had begun and the booming voice of the pastor echoed around the soaring heights of the nave. The ceiling and the shrines or Lady Chapels that encircle the basilica are covered with Byzantine-style mosaics composed of tiny bits of stone composed to form images of saints and of Our Lady. The dominant image just behind the altar is of Christ in Majesty. After Mass and Communion, we toured the precincts of the church and were struck by the varied shrines representing devotion to various avatars of the Virgin Mother: as Mother of Sorrows, as our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (headquartered in Paris, France), as the Black Madonna of Poland, as our Lady of Guadalupe, etc. As we circumnavigated the church, pausing to pray or to light a candle at each of the altars or shrines, we were stunned by the beauty, the workmanship and the devotion of the faithful that were involved in this mammoth project.

            Corinne then led us down to the Crypt from where the Sunday Roman Catholic Mass is televised nationally throughout the USA through the mini-church in the basement. Sculpture of newer saints such as St. Teresa of Calcutta are dotted around these vast marble floors while stained glass windows in niches brought jeweled tones into the interior. It was all quite fascinating indeed and we could not believe that we have never toured a place that was initiated in the mid-1800s and that has become a primary center for Roman Catholic worship in America.  

Dinner at Le Thai Restaurant:

            Night had fallen by the time we entered Corinne’s car for the 25-minute drive home to Lorton. At her suggestion, we opted for Thai cuisine (which we both adore) at a modest place called Le Thai where the owner, Bobby, has known Corinne for years. We had Tiger Tears (marinated steak in a chilli dipping sauce) and Thai Chicken Wings for appetizers (both superb), Chicken Pad Thai, Panang Curry with Shrimp and Pad Se Ew (wide rice noodles with broccoli in a spicy soy sauce). Everything was grand with the proper balance of sweet, sour, spicy that is the hallmark of good Thai cuisine. We had no room for dessert, so we returned home to gab some more with hot tea as we slowly made our way to bed.

            It has been a great first day and we were quite pleased with the start of our holiday.

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