A brief visit to Trebinje

(Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

After a wacky bus ride from Mostar, I’m staying briefly in the small city of Trebinje.  It’s located very close to the borders of both Croatia and Montenegro.  However, it’s also located in the “Republika Srpska” (“RS” for short) and I should briefly explain that.

Mepas Mall in Mostar.  I visited here just before leaving for Trebinje
Mepas Mall in Mostar. I  took a quick look here just before leaving for Trebinje

The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is actually comprised of two entities:  (1) the “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which is largely made up of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, and (2) the “Republika Srpska”, which is largely made up of Bosnian Serbs.  Furthermore, there is one small region that belongs to both the Federation and RS, as no satisfactory division could be made.  Sarajevo and Mostar are both in the Federation, while Trebinje is in the RS.  The borders correspond more or less to the front lines at the time of the ceasefire in 1995.

It’s quite different here:  the Cyrillic alphabet dominates and there are many signs, etc., reminding people that they are in the RS.  As Trebinje is a smaller city and does not attract as many tourists, I seem to be more of a curiosity here.  Many people speak only Serbian.  There also isn’t much war damage here as the front lines were farther to the west.

There are at least three major sights in Trebinje:  the “monastery” of Hercegovacka Gracanica, the Arslanagic bridge, and the walled old town.

Hercegovacka Gracanica, atop Crkvina, as seen from the Arslanagic Bridge
Hercegovacka Gracanica, atop Crkvina, as seen from the Arslanagic Bridge

I first visited Hercegovacka Gracanica, a small monastery located at the top of a small mountain called Crkvina.  I made the 2km walk in record time due to the heavy rain.  The walk was worth it, though, as there are fabulous views from the top.  The monastery is also fascinating:  it is an exact replica of a monastery in Gracanica, Kosovo that is very important to Orthodox Serbs.  A wealthy Bosnian Serb expat financed the construction of this replica (and you can even see his picture in the artwork that covers the interior walls).  I’ve never seen such a colourful interior, even in other Orthodox churches.  Alas, because it is quite small, it was almost impossible to take a photograph that properly captured the interior.  The photo at the top of this post shows one small part, while I’m also posting a more expansive picture from a larger downtown Orthodox church that shares some of the basic colour themes (although the style is actually quite different).

Inside the "Svetog Preobrazzenja" in downtown Trebinje (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Inside the “Svetog Preobrazenja” in downtown Trebinje (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

From the top of Crkvina, I descended to the Trebinsnica River and the Arslanagic Bridge. This bridge also dates back to the Ottoman period (1574), but it has little else in common with the old bridge in Mostar.  The Arslanagic Bridge was not harmed in the war but it was relocated in the 1970s from its original location in the downtown core.    I should mention that I narrowly missed stepping on a (presumably) dead hedgehog as I neared the bridge.  I have a photo if anybody wants to see it.


View of Trebinje (including Arslanagic Bridge, at centre-right),from top of Crkvina
View of Trebinje (including Arslanagic Bridge, at centre-right),from top of Crkvina

Finally, I wandered through the walled old  town.  It’s quaint but not as prettied up as some other old towns:  many people still live within the walls and I discovered that it attracts attention if you take photographs.

View of the old town, Trebinje
View of the old town, Trebinje

As for the “wacky” bus ride…it was normal for the first hour or so.   The driver then seemed to be running a lot of personal errands, so he made up for lost time by driving exceptionally fast on narrow mountain roads.  He also smoked, made phone calls, did paperwork, drank water, snacked and repeatedly spit out the window while driving.  Strangely, I preferred it when he did these other tasks, as it seemed to slow him down a bit.

I was the only passenger who actually crossed the Federation/RS border.  There were a lot of other passengers on either side but they only travelled within their own entity.  Even though the two entities belong to the same country, there appears to be little interaction between them.

I’m leaving Bosnia & Herzegovina tomorrow morning.  I hear that the weather will improve…just in time for me to appreciate the legendary Dalmatian coast!

A Tranquil Day

(Mostar, Bosnia & Herzergovina)

After some gritty images in my last two posts, I’m looking at a more tranquil side of Herzegovinian life today.

I began by visiting the nearby village of Blagaj.  To be honest, I had never heard of it before coming here.  However, I wanted to explore outside of Mostar and Blagaj was the only vaguely touristy place that I could reach by public transportation.  I had hoped to go on a group excursion to see an assortment of local attractions but there were no spaces available.

Of course, the journey is often just as important as the destination.  I had to take a local bus to get to Blagaj.  When it’s not your country and not your language, something as simple as taking the local bus becomes a real adventure.  Finding and figuring out the bilingual (Croatian/Bosnian) city bus schedule, for a Sunday, proved to be a worthy challenge.

Alas, the bus was late and a local gentleman began asking me questions about Blagaj in Bosnian (or was it Croatian?).  I was glad to be mistaken for a local, but could only mutter “Engleski?” in response.  He shrugged and walked away.  Hoping that nothing was wrong with the bus, I boarded it apprehensively a few minutes later when it finally pulled up to the bus stop.  The bus driver sure seemed determined to make up for lost time, so I held on tight and hoped that the bus had functioning brakes.  I hopped off the bus at what seemed to be a more-or-less central location in Blagaj and began to explore.

The Tekija in Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Tekija in Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina

As it turns out, Blagaj really has only one major attraction:  the Tekija, a “monastery” for Turkish dervishes.  I had to remove my shoes and leave them outside, as per the custom for Muslim buildings (I have to do the same thing in my hotel).  TheTekija was peaceful and well-suited for quiet contemplation.  It also has a spectacular setting:  immediately below a cliff face, out of which roars a turbulent river.  So turbulent, in fact, that a number of the nearby restaurants had their patio seating (unintentionally) under water.  I took a few pictures and, after a cursory look around downtown Blagaj, managed to find my way back to Mostar.

The Tekija, the Buna River, a very large rock, and an almost submersed bridge (Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

After buying and writing some postcards, I decided to do something that I have never done before:  visit a mosque and climb to the top of its minaret.  The Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque in Mostar is a national monument, so non-Muslims are allowed to go inside, to climb the minaret, and even to take pictures (something I confirmed with the attendant, as this is usually not the case).  They even allow you to keep your shoes on, as a special covering is on the floor where tourists walk.  The mosque was relatively austere inside; like almost all religious buildings in Mostar, it had to be rebuilt after the war.

Inside the mosque
Inside the mosque

The climb to the top of minaret was quite a challenge.  Very narrow, very steep, very circular, and even very wet as you neared the top.  Reverting to a legal frame of mind, I briefly considered the liability issues.  When I finally emerged from the stairs, there was a frighteningly narrow viewing platform that was drowning in at least one inch of water.  I’m so glad that I bought waterproof hiking shoes for this trip!  Holding on tightly to the railing and taking very small and splooshy steps, I then enjoyed the most fantastic 360′ view of Mostar (the photo at the top of today’s blog post is from here).  Of course, my sensations may have been “heightened” by the challenging conditions I endured to get to and move around the top of the minaret.

Mostar's East Bank, from the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque's minaret
Mostar’s East Bank, from the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque’s minaret

All in all, it was a mostly peaceful day.  However, I readily admit that it might not have been so peaceful for somebody with a fear of heights, water, watery heights, enclosed spaces and/or excess speed.  There is always another side of the story, even when visiting tranquil sites!

Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque (Mostar) - was the minaret really leaning that much?
Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque (Mostar) – was the minaret really leaning that much?


(Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

From Sarajevo, it is a 3-hour bus ride south through the mountains to the historic city of Mostar.

Like many communities in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Mostar is known to many people only as the scene of horrific fighting during the war of the early 1990s.   It had a remarkable 400+ year-old bridge but that too was destroyed during the recent conflict.   The bridge has since been rebuilt in accordance with the original design (see above) and using the same materials.  Many hoped that this highly symbolic reconstruction would accelerate the patching up of relations between the former adversaries.  I’ll return to this question later.

But first – some background information on the conflict in the Mostar area.  At the beginning of the war, the Bosnian Serbs were essentially driven out of the city by the combined Bosniak (Muslim) and Bosnian Croat forces.  However, conflict then arose between the Bosniaks and Croats.  The Bosniaks controlled the east side of the Neretva River, while the Croats controlled most of the west side.  In 1993, the worst year of fighting, the bridge was destroyed.  The cemeteries are filled with those who perished that year.

Looking down Onešćukova ulica in Mostar's old town
Looking down Onešćukova ulica in Mostar’s old town

Even after only one day here, it seems to me that Mostar was affected by the war even more than Sarajevo.  Many buildings in the city still lie in ruins, although some tremendous restoration work has been done.  The old town is an incredibly picturesque place, with narrow, twisting streets and stairways and bridges leading in all directions.  The old bridge truly is something to behold – both as a sight to be seen from a distance and as something to cross.  The views from the bridge itself are also spectacular.

View from the old bridge in Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
View from the old bridge in Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

There are quaint restaurants appearing all over the “tourist zone” – and, if you avoid one notorious area with great views but poor food, there are restaurants that even locals can recommend.   It also is even cheaper than Sarajevo, although I think that many restaurants are still out of reach of the average local resident.  As you can see from the photographs, there is a purely aesthetic reason that tourists are showing up here in increasing numbers.

However, Mostar is not as big as Sarajevo (the capital) and does not have as many foreign residents.  There are fewer buffers and intermediaries.  As a result, the “war reminders” that I described in my posting on the Sarajevo Siege seem even more intense here.  Despite the undeniable beauty and the reconciliation efforts that have been made by both sides, one still feels tension.  Of course, I just might be more aware of it now that I’ve been in the country for a few days.

Hotel Neretva - luxury hotel destroyed in the early 1990s and still standing on the riverfront (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Hotel Neretva – luxury hotel destroyed in the early 1990s (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

As a result of this tension, I’m glad that I splurged a little on my accommodations.  It’s very peaceful and relaxing, as I’m staying in a mansion that was originally built during the Ottoman period by a wealthy family.   It is a “national monument” with impenetrable walls that started as a museum and subsequently became a hotel as well.   My room is furnished (with original items!) as it was a century ago.  There are “curtains” around my bed, oriental carpets, a ceiling intricately carved out of wood (!), and arches over each of my 5 windows.  If you want to see more pictures and details, check out the website at http://www.muslibegovichouse.com.

Muslibegovic House in Mostar – my room is on the 2nd floor (1st floor in Europe), closest to the camera.

The Siege of Sarajevo

(Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

I went on a guided tour today that was based on “The Siege of Sarajevo”.  The city was besieged for almost 4 years in the early 1990s, until an internationally-facilitated peace accord finally stopped the hostilities throughout the new nation of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

I am really trying to avoid taking sides or politicizing this blog.   However, I should provide at least a little bit of non-contentious, factual background to help contextualize what I’ll be seeing on this trip.  There are many stories arising from the Bosnian conflict of 1992-1995; today, I’ll just focus on the Siege of Sarajevo.  I also won’t speculate on the causes, the blame, or any of the external issues that affected the conflict.

Bosnia & Herzegovina was one of the independent nations that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991-2.  While there is at least one exception (Kosovo was part of Serbia when Yugoslavia was still united), each independent nation that exists today was originally a republic within Yugoslavia prior to its breakup.  Bosnia & Herzegovina was somewhat different, though, as it contained significant populations of three major religious groups:  Bosnian Croats (Catholic), Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), and Bosniaks (Muslims).  Ethnically and linguistically, these groups are basically identical.  They have also lived together for many hundreds of years with very few disputes.  However, from 1992-1995, these groups were in conflict.

During the Siege, Sarajevo was virtually surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces.  Life in Sarajevo during the Siege was very hard and there was no real connection to the outside world.  Imagine not taking a bath or shower for 3 years because there was no running water (or electricity, for that matter) and no access to the rivers…but there were much more serious dangers.

Looking northeast from Sarajevo
Looking northeast from Sarajevo

Our guide talked extensively about the snipers positioned throughout the mountains surrounding Sarajevo.  Because the mountains are so close (the city is actually located on the lower slopes), venturing outside one’s home raised the very real possibility of death or grievous injury from sniper fire.  You basically lived in your basement and hoped to survive until tomorrow.  Our guide was a teenager at the time and lost both his grandmother and uncle, as well as numerous cousins, to such sniper fire.  His childhood best friend was killed by a grenade.   Over 11,500 Sarajevans, of all “groups”, died during the Siege.

View from mountains above Sarajevo (note cemetery at centre left)
View from mountains above Sarajevo (note cemetery)

As the war went on, the besieged city eventually became tenuously connected to the outside world through the daring construction of an 800 metre long tunnel under the UN-controlled airport.  We walked through a small portion of the narrow tunnel (1.0 by 1.6 metres) – it was hard enough without carrying 70 kg of supplies or dealing with the deep water that flooded the tunnel.  However, even if you could get to the tunnel entrance and then make it through the tunnel itself, you still needed to cross a further kilometre of extremely dangerous land before reaching an area that could be considered “safe”.

The Tunnel Museum (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
The Tunnel Museum (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina), end of the tunnel and pockmarked by bullets

After viewing the tunnel, we went back into the mountains where snipers were based…and where the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsled and luge events were held.  It was startling to see the sports facilities lying in such desolation.  They haven’t been used since the war started, nor have they been maintained.  The mountain lifts, hotels and restaurants were shattered concrete shells that were being swallowed up by the encroaching weeds and forest (the photo at the top of this post is actually the top station of a cable car).  Our guide took us to a place where we could safely walk down the crumbling bobsled track for about 15 minutes.   Instead of being invigorating, however, it felt dangerous…almost like the war was still going on.  The mountain was silent, abandoned, and shrouded by wild vegetation and a thick mist.  It was impossible to conceive of this spot being the site of a joyous Olympic celebration.

1984 Olympic bobsled run (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
1984 Olympic bobsled run (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

We saw and heard much more.  We began to lose track of the cemeteries, explosion sites and “former buildings”.  Yet this was only one location:  similar stories, with different parties and roles, occurred throughout the dissolving Yugoslavia.  It was hard to reconcile this with the safe and comfortable feeling I had yesterday in downtown Sarajevo.

Looking for some balance, I treated myself to a nice dinner afterwards.  I can’t imagine facing the reminders of this conflict on a daily basis…but, despite ongoing reconstruction efforts, that is precisely what many residents of Bosnia & Herzegovina still do.

Finish line at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics
Finish line at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics


Greetings from Bosnia & Herzegovina

(Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

I will admit that my decision to visit Bosnia & Herzegovina (“BiH” for short, as they write it here) elicited some surprised looks, for those who knew about my travel plans.  It’s not a place that has a high tourism profile in Canada.  I will also admit that upon arrival my first impressions were lukewarm at best:  the weather was rainy, the airport was dark and the ride downtown from the airport was uninspiring.  I saw lots of crumbling buildings from the communist era and even my (nice) hotel didn’t inspire a lot of confidence from the outside.   I decided to take a nap, as I really hadn’t slept on the overnight flight to Vienna.

However, once I woke up, walking one block from my hotel made me feel a whole lot better.   After making my way through “Pigeon Square” (pictured above), I saw a completely different Sarajevo.  The old town is a compelling mix of  Ottoman and Central European influences.  At times, I felt like I was in Istanbul, while at others I could have been in Austria or northern Italy.   One key difference is that Sarajevo is markedly cheaper than any of those other places.  One can live and eat very well here, on a Canadian budget.  I had a very nice meal in a rustic old town restaurant that would have cost at least twice as much (if not more) in Rome.

Stari Grad (Old City) of Sarajevo
Stari Grad (Old City) of Sarajevo

After dinner, even though the sun was long gone, it seemed like the whole town was out for a walk in the (very large) pedestrian district.  I heard many different languages and saw many different styles of dress.  I felt completely safe and it was very peaceful in the soft light and soft rain.

Sarajevo at night (minaret and clock tower)
Sarajevo at night (minaret and clock tower)

Of course, there is a flip side.  BiH has unemployment that, depending on your source, could be approaching 40%.  The unemployed young people seem to be somewhat restless.  The history and cultural diversity that makes it such a fascinating place to visit can also make it vulnerable…as we saw during the tragic events of the 1990s.

I’m glad that I had a pleasant evening here and saw how BiH could work well.  Tomorrow, I am going on a guided tour concerning the Siege of Sarajevo and will undoubtedly hear some different perspectives on BiH’s recent history.

Another Unexpected Detour

(Belleville, Ontario, Canada)

Today was another example of how you just have to roll with it when you are travelling.

As I had been itching to get out on the road again, we drove to the nearby city of Belleville.   Our “excuse” was that today was Record Store Day and the last remaining Sam The Record Man store is located in Belleville.  Record Store Day now receives a lot of mainstream press, so I don’t think I need to describe it in detail.  In brief:  it is a celebration of independent record stores and more specifically the vinyl record format.  Lots of unique and rare records are released on Record Store Day…and only to independent record stores.  You won’t find these records at big box stores.

Alas, none of Sam’s Record Store Day offerings appealed to me.  We headed downtown to grab some lunch (Thai House – very good) and to see if there was any music of interest at the nearby used CD/record store.  While their vinyl offerings were uninspiring, we stumbled upon a DVD entitled “Radio Revolution:  The Rise and Fall of the Big 8”.   This DVD chronicles the fascinating history of Windsor’s CKLW radio station…a history that I knew nothing about, as that station essentially died in 1984 and I didn’t get involved in radio for another couple of years.  If you have any interest whatsoever in the history of Canadian radio, you’ll enjoy this documentary.

I met my wife at CFRC (Queen’s University Radio) in the late 1980s.  My band first got airplay there and I was actually interviewed as a musician there before becoming a programmer.  Once I passed my broadcast test, CFRC became the place to hang out between classes…and pretty much any other time.  It had interesting people and a hundred thousand records – what more could you ask for?  While I didn’t spend quite as much time at the station after (finally) finishing my studies at Queen’s, I ended up broadcasting at CFRC for 17 years.  Many of our closest friends today first came into our lives at CFRC (including the guy who helped me set up this blog!).

This documentary vividly brought back the characters, the fun and even the technology of our radio days.  What a special opportunity we had – all this music, with almost complete freedom to play whatever we wanted and to do so with as much creativity as we could muster.  We met some famous musicians as well as many more not-so-famous musicians.  All of them had a soft spot for grassroots radio; in fact, many of them had worked at stations just like ours.   Whevener I meet a musician today, my radio station experience is invariably the common ground.

City Hall (Belleville, Ontario)
City Hall (Belleville, Ontario)

I had hoped to take some spring photos on the way back to Kingston but fate intervened again.  The “CHECK ENGINE” light appeared in our car and we thought it would be best to get back to Kingston without stopping.  Of course, I have no regrets – our earlier-than-expected arrival in Kingston allowed us to watch the radio documentary almost right away.

Physically, then, it was a trip to Belleville.  In reality, however, it turned out be a trip through my broadcasting past (via Windsor!)…and a reminder of just how important radio has been in my life.

Stay tuned for what will undoubtedly be some very exciting adventures as I fly on Tuesday (with a stopover in Vienna, Austria) to my next destination!

Staying in Shape for Travel

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I do a lot of walking (and eating) when I travel, so I try to stay in peak travelling condition by being very physically active when I am in Kingston.  Hockey lasts all year, while soccer has just started and curling will end this week.  I supplement these sports with brisk walks in and around the city. 

Today’s post contains some photos from my local wanderings.  A favourite local destination is Lemoine Point, which is also home to an increasing number of wild animals.  

Lemoine Point, Kingston (March 2014)

We used to see deer from time to time but they are now almost an everyday occurrence.  All of the deer in this post were spotted on the same trail, at approximately the same time of day. 

Lemoine Point, Kingston(February 2014)
Lemoine Point, Kingston (February 2014)

When Lemoine Point is too wet or muddy, there  is a (mostly paved) waterfront trail between Lake Ontario Park and Portsmouth Olympic Harbour.  It is a good place to cool off, as the wind really keeps the temperature down.

Lake Ontario Park - Kingston, Ontario (April 2014)
Near Lake Ontario Park – Kingston, Ontario (April 2014)

Running north from the built-up part of the city is the K&P Trail.  The most interesting part of this former railway is the long climb between Jackson Mills Road and Cordukes Road.  We walked the entire trail between Kingston and Harrowsmith last fall and are walking north of Harrowsmith this spring.   

Next Tuesday, I’ll be leaving on a lengthy (almost three weeks) overseas trip .   As always, I won’t specifically identify my destinations in advance on this blog.  One interesting aspect will be the use of two different alphabets, as well as at least four different languages (in name, if not necessarily in substance).  While there, I hope to see some professional soccer, as two of the countries I’ll be visiting will be participating in this year’s World Cup and two others narrowly missed qualifying.  However, the most important thing will be experiencing a beautiful region with a tragic recent past.

Adventures in International Dining

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I’ve been back in Kingston for a few days now but wanted to share some more photos and stories from Washington D.C.

After visiting the Pentagon on my last full day in Washington, I went on an Ethiopian lunch quest.  I have been a huge fan of Ethiopian food ever since my friends Keith and Erika introduced me to it in Toronto in the early 1990s.  My favourite Ethiopian food so far has been in Winnipeg, of all places.

Many of you will know this, but just in case…Ethiopian dining generally consists of a series of somewhat curry-like, and often spicy, “sauces” served on a very large crepe/pancake called injera.   Injera tastes a little bit like sourdough bread.  You eat with your hands;  tearing off pieces of the injera and scooping up the sauce with it.  You get extra injera on the side but the idea is to also eat the injera that held the sauces.

The Old Post Office (Washington, D.C.)
The Old Post Office (Washington, D.C.) – I went to the top for a view of  the city.

I read that Washington D.C. has the second-largest Ethiopian population of any city in the world…including cities in Ethiopia!  Ethiopian restaurants were allegedly ubiquitous; one D.C. company even offers an Ethiopian food tour!  Surely, I would have no trouble finding one for lunch.   I decided to travel to the Adams-Morgan neighbourhood – it promised an eclectic mix of ethnic eateries, record stores and artsy shops.   It sounded somewhat like Queen Street West in Toronto (before the national chains moved in).

My record shopping was successful.   Alas, I was getting very hungry and I could only find 2 Ethiopian restaurants after a long search.   One looked very appealing but was closed for another four hours.   The other claimed to be open but I couldn’t see any customers inside.  Disregarding one of the cardinal rules of travel dining (“avoid if nobody else is eating there”), I took a quick peek inside.  It was dark – I think most of the light was usually generated by the wall of (dark) TVs near the bar.  A friendly server confirmed that they were in fact serving lunch and that I could have a seat in the “dining room”.

Well, the dining room had definitely seen better days.  It featured a “rustic” 1970s wood-panel/abandoned sports bar look that had nothing to do with Ethiopia.  Not even a faded travel poster!  Only one customer (drinking tea but not eating food) was there, but he left as soon as I sat down.   I tried not to look too closely at the place; thankfully, the absence of light made close inspection difficult.

I didn’t have the heart to leave, and I was really really hungry, but was eating here really a smart thing to do?  I considered the consequences – the most harm would likely come from dodgy meat.  I decided on the vegetarian lunch platter – a series of lentil- and spinach-based sauces on injera.  My anxiety increased somewhat as the server spent a very long time on the phone discussing the secretive delivery of a package to an apartment building.  I couldn’t help hearing the extensive conversation about Apartment 105, as there was still nobody else in the restaurant.

I needn’t have worried – while it wasn’t the very best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had (the injera was somewhat powdery and two of the sauces could have used some warming), it was good enough and I cleaned up everything on my very large plate.  One of the lentil/berbere sauces was especially red, spicy and delicious.

Soviet and American nuclear missiles - National Air & Space Museum (Washington, D.C.)
Soviet and American nuclear missiles – National Air & Space Museum (Washington, D.C.)

I spent most of the afternoon wandering “Embassy Row” and Georgetown.  There are nearly 200 embassies here, in addition to various international organizations such as the Organization of American States.  Even the smallest nation has an impressive embassy building, while some of the larger ones have massive office blocks.

Canada’s embassy is downtown rather than on Embassy Row.  It is functional rather than visually appealing, although Canada (like most of the larger countries) also has a separate home for its ambassador near Embassy Row.  These generally are designed to impress, even though an increasing amount of international diplomacy and negotiation is now carried out by private lobbying firms on behalf of nations.  I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures of diplomatic buildings – there was a very heavy security presence.  The Russian and Syrian ones felt especially tense.

Canadian Embassy - Washington, D.C.
Canadian Embassy – Washington, D.C.

I ate dinner at a tiny Japanese/Korean place in Crystal City, Virginia.  I properly researched it beforehand and knew that I had nothing to worry about!

I’ll be back in a few days to share some nice Kingston-area photos and drop a few hints about my next trip.  It’s the longest one yet (almost 3 weeks) and, from a linguistic perspective, will be the most challenging one so far too.

The Pentagon

(Washington, D.C., U.S.A.)

A couple of months ago, I applied to take a tour of the Pentagon.  You need to apply at least 6 weeks (preferably more) in advance…and then you wait.  You are screened for security reasons and, if approved, only receive notification of that approval 1-2 days before your requested tour date.

It was by no means a sure thing.  After all, the Pentagon is the command centre of the U.S. military and is a highly sensitive facility.  Not being an American citizen, I didn’t expect my visit to be a priority for the Pentagon.  However, shortly after arriving in Washington, I found out that my application had been approved and that I would be able to take the tour.  After passing through an airport-style security check, I was in the Pentagon and about to begin my tour with a group of students from Georgia (the state) and a family from the U.K.

The tour is not for the feeble.  You walk almost constantly for just under an hour.  You cannot stop, not even for a drink of water.  The leader walks backward throughout the tour to keep an eye on the group, with a second “leader” following at the rear to ensure that the group keeps moving and remains intact.

The Pentagon is huge.  23,000 people work there, consisting of 7,000 officers, 4,000 enlisted personnel and 12,000 civilians.  At one point, we were walking down a hallway that was more than 3 football fields long.  The Pentagon is essentially a self-sustaining city; once inside, it almost feels like you are in a suburban mall…except that almost every customer is in uniform and is striding with an unusually strong sense of purpose.

Much of the commentary consisted of general information about the various branches of the U.S. military.  We did not visit many specific sites within the complex, although we did see the internal memorial to the 184 victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.   It is located at the point of the plane’s impact.  To get there, we walked down a hallway (now completely rebuilt) that was wiped out by the plane after it first struck the building.  At one point, we even saw some scorch marks on a wall that were left by the burning aircraft once it came to a halt.  We also learned that the death toll would have been much higher (perhaps several thousand more), but the area hit by the aircraft was being renovated at the time and most of the personnel from that area had been relocated.

For obvious reasons, photography is prohibited inside the Pentagon except in the tightly-controlled visitor centre (see photo at the top of this post).  Outside, photography is not allowed either, except at the 9/11 Memorial.

9/11 Memorial, just outside the Pentagon
Entrance to the 9/11 Memorial, just outside the Pentagon

The external 9/11 Memorial does not require pre-approval; anybody can visit it without making advance arrangements.  The Memorial consists of one “bench” for every victim (one of whom was only 3 years old) of the attack.  The angle of each “bench” is 43 degrees, being the plane’s angle at the moment of impact.  As each victim’s name and year of birth is part of the Memorial, the tragedy is personalized.   I saw that 5 of the victims were my age; each one was a member of the military and would have been working at the Pentagon when the plane struck.

9/11 Memorial just outside the Pentagon
9/11 Memorial just outside the Pentagon

After visiting the site of one of the 9/11 attacks, any discussion of the remainder of my day can’t help but seem rather inconsequential.  Among many other things, the Pentagon visit reminded me how much the world changed on that day in 2001 and what a profound and continuing effect it has had on our American neighbours in particular.

The National Mall Marathon

(Washington, D.C., U.S.A.)

I went a little crazy today on Washington’s National Mall.

First up was a tour of the U.S. Capitol building (pictured above).  This is similar to Canada’s Parliament buildings, with a lot more marble.  I had to apply for this in advance and, given all of the security and complicated logistics, the tour itself was somewhat underwhelming.  It’s a remarkable building but, after a 15 minute video, the tour itself was barely 30 minutes long and was extremely crowded.  The tour nonetheless reinforced how Canada and the U.S.A. arose from very different circumstances and how those differences continue to shape our respective countries today.

Upper lobby at the Library of Congress
Upper lobby at the Library of Congress

Already growing weary of the security measures at every site, I took advantage of the fact that I could take a shortcut tunnel to the Library of Congress and not go through another metal detection process.  The Library of Congress is another opulent structure with a couple of special items…including an original Gutenberg bible.  Oh yes, it also contains basically every book,  recording and document ever published.

Reading Room at the Library of Congress
Reading Room at the Library of Congress

Growing hungry, I remembered that the nearby National Museum of the American Indian had a very highly regarded cafeteria.  I decided to eat food from the Northern Woodlands; my main course was maple-brined turkey with cherry marmalade and it was very good.  I’m really glad that I decided to see the museum after lunch, as it had extensive displays from not only the U.S. but also from indigenous peoples throughout North and South America.

There were some common themes in the exhibits – in particular, a number of different groups had philosophies based on the four points of the compass.  In fact, the Anishinaabe of Manitoba have a legend about a man who travels extensively in each of the four directions in order to bring wisdom back to a tribe that has lost its way.  I have come across the theme of travel as a valuable means of learning quite a bit recently.

Next up was a visit to the top of the Old Post Office building.  With the Washington Monument closed, this was a good alternative way to see the National Mall from above.

National Archives (Washington, D.C.)
National Archives (Washington, D.C.)

From there, I dashed over to the National Archives.  The chief attractions there were a trio of original American documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution) and an original Magna Carta from the 13th century.  While it was great to see these “star attractions”, there were also many other worthwhile items.  I particularly enjoyed the exhibit on “signatures” – it turns out even celebrities like to get autographs from other celebrities!

I was getting quite tired by this point, but nonetheless proceeded to the National Air & Space Museum as it was open late.  It was sobering to see the nuclear missiles (both Soviet and American) as well as the spacecraft from the Apollo/Soyuz joint mission of the mid-1970s.   Other notable exhibits included an actual lunar landing module and a series of photographs from Mars.

Lunar landing probe (National Museum of Air and Space)
Lunar landing module (National Museum of Air and Space)

Objectively, this was probably too much sightseeing for one day.  However, all of the above sights are free and are located within easy walking distance of one another.   I am treating this as a “first cut” at Washington:  Louise and I will undoubtedly return before long, so I now have some ideas about what deserves a closer second look and what is of relatively lesser interest.

I’m very excited about tomorrow.  I’ll be exploring a new (museum-free) neighbourhood…and finally seeing something special that I began setting up two months ago!