A Capital Idea - Day One

It is seldom that I do anything that could really be considered spontaneous; I am a planner, and I like to take a measured, calculated approach to life whenever possible. In fact, even when I do something that seems spur of the moment at first glance, there is usually actually quite a bit of forethought that has gone into it, I have just chosen to finally act on it all of a sudden.

That was what happened when I emailed Justin a couple weeks ago and asked him, seemly out of the blue, if he could get President's Day off of work and if he wanted to go to Washington DC for the long weekend.I had found a great deal on a hotel room in one of the many travel deal emails I receive, but we had to act fast. Luckily for me, he was able to secure the day off on short notice, and I was able to cash in my credit card reward points to purchase the airfare, further reducing the cost for our last minute getaway.

Actually, there was really nothing last minute  about it. I have been wanting to get away pretty much ever since  we finished the holiday season, but because I am still in the probationary period at my new job until March, I don't have any time off until May, except for President's Day. I had been devouring my daily deal emails looking for something tempting, but nothing really struck the right balance of a desirable destination, affordable airfare, quality accommodations, and overall price.

Justin and I have been talking about wanting to see New York for a while (I haven't been since before 9/11, and he has never been), so initially I had focused my search there. However, nothing ever turned up in our price range that wasn't in a undesirable neighborhood, and I wasn't willing to break the bank just for the sake of getting out of town.

Just when I had about given up hope, I spotted a deal for Kimpton group hotel called The Topaz in Washington DC. I had had positive experiences at their establishments in the past, and the price was right. I had been interested in going to DC again, not just to pay a visit to my friend, Katie, whom I traveled to DC to see back in 2009, but also because I had seen that there was a new food exhibit opening at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and I was interested in seeing it. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

I booked us a flight for Friday night, under the logic that if we got into town the night before, we could wake up early and make the most of our time in the city. However, our late flight didn't get into DC until after midnight, and when we got to the hotel they tried to give us a room that was directly across from the elevator. As in, the elevator door opened and the first thing you saw was our room.

Much to Justin's mortification, I marched us back to the front desk, complained about the situation, and after a long series of negotiations, got us moved to a huge suite at no additional cost. I was very pleased, but by the time we finally got to bed, it was nearly two in the morning.

As a result, we were so exhausted this morning that we greatly overslept, costing us an entire half a day. Considering all the stress associated with getting to the airport after work for our flight, we could have just flown in this morning and saved ourselves the effort.

After touching base with Katie, we agreed to meet her at the National Museum of the American Indian, and by the time we arrived, it was time for lunch. This was actually fine with us, as we chose the museum in part because we wanted to try their food court, which has stations serving various foods typical of Native American groups from different regions.

I made a beeline to the Northern Plains section, where I knew I would be able to find Indian tacos. Consisting of a piece of fry bread, topped with buffalo chili, shredded lettuce, cheese and tomato, Indian tacos were, by far, the highlight of the school trip I was compelled to take to South Dakota and Nebraska in 2006, and I haven't had another one in the years since.

The one I obtained today wasn't quite as transcendent as those, but it was still very good, and probably one of the best meals I've ever eaten from a museum food court. Justin had the same thing that I did, but Katie sampled the salmon from the Northwest Coast station, and she seemed similarly impressed with the quality of her meal. We ate and chatted, but did not linger too long over the meal, as the dining room was very crowded and not exactly conducive to conversation.

We started our tour of the museum with a movie that introduced the themes of the museum, without going into much detail, before continuing into an exhibit dedicated to exploring the spiritual outlook, origin story, and worldview of different groups. Each group was treated like a spoke on a wheel, radiating out from an inner circle, but the information for each was not presented as clearly as it could have been. For instance, it was very difficult to figure out a geographic location for each tribe, and I often had to infer where they were from based on what they were wearing and how the weather looked.

I appreciated the museum's novel approach to displaying artifacts; instead of hanging items in neat, orderly rows, they tried wavy rows, concentric circles, and other creative arrangements. A case full of arrow heads, for instance, took on the appearance of a school of fish, and small golden ornaments from pre-Columbian Meso-America conjured an image of the sun and its rays. That said, though there was an incredible collection of artifacts, the material culture was not the focus. There was little information about the objects such as when and where they were made.

Instead, the museum was focused on giving the tribes a voice to tell their own stories, an opportunity that has historically been denied them. This led to some redundancies and a lack of cohesiveness from exhibit to exhibit, but I think the curators still deserve to be lauded for their approach.

There were two stories in particular that stuck with me. One was that of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California, whose way of life depends on the Trinity River, which had been dammed by the California government. Whenever they need to perform one of their ceremonies that requires canoes, they must petition the Sacramento Water Reclamation District to release extra water so that their boats do not get grounded on the bottom of the river bed.

Adding insult to injury, an evangelical Christian group has built a church on the border of their territory, and they broadcast their sermons via loudspeakers into the valley in an attempt to convert the Hoopa people. It's hard to believe that this kind of insensitivity exists even today; it honestly sounds like something out of the 18th century.

I also greatly enjoyed learning about the Metis tribe in Canada, who trace their lineage to a mixture of First Nations people and French colonists. Today they live in Saint Laurent, Quebec, where a number of them make their living in commercial fishing. In the winter, when the water is frozen, they travel over the ice in vehicles called "bombardiers," originally built in the 1950s to transport children to school across the snow. They run on treads, like a tank, with two runners in the front that look like skis. I had never seen anything like it, and they even had one there on display.

About halfway through the museum, Katie left us to go home n get ready for a date she had scheduled that evening. We had made a three person reservation for Mala Tang, a Szechuan restaurant that she had highly recommended, but we decided to roll with the punches and go without her. I guess this is what happens when you are in an established relationship and your friends are still single.
It seriously took us 29 takes to get a decent photo of the two of us with the Capitol building in the background.
Unfortunately, we did not have a very good meal at Mala Tang, causing us to miss Katie's company even more. The focus of the restaurant was hot pot, sort of like the Chinese version of fondue, in which you receive a pot of boiling broth and use it to cook selected proteins, starches and vegetables. Being a Szechuan place, we were expecting the food to be very spicy, so we ordered one spicy broth and one mild broth just in case.

However, we soon discovered that the spicy broth was barely piquant, and the mild broth could have been water as far as we cold tell. The food was shockingly bland, we ordered way too much of it, and it quickly grew tiresome to have to cook everything ourselves. Much as I like to cook at home, when I pay money to go out, I think I prefer to have everything done for me.

Dinner was definitely a bust; the only upside was that I feel newly motivated to return to Lao Szechuan, a legendary restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, when we get home. We may have lucked out with our free room upgrade in DC on our first day, but you can't win 'em all...

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