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Sunday, March 7, 2010


I've caught Amtrack around the U.S., used Eurail Pass (where sudden strikes in Italy and France just happen) and spent a lot of time on the Japan Shinkansen. Strange things happen in this mode of transport. I was waiting in the Acela lounge at Penn Station (NYC) and was told 15 minutes before departure (11AM) that the track number was 12. I got organized, walked to the track, and saw an enormous line to get down the escalator to tracks 11 and 12. I finally, finally, got to my train, which was the very first one to board, found a seat, and the train left on time no more than a minute after my getting on.

The Acela First Class dining menu had a wide assortment of spirits, beer and wine. I started with an Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, then had a Heineken beer with the main entree, a Rocking KB Ranch Chili. See that large dark green pepper on the chile? Normally, bigger varieties are not too hot. This one, to my shock, had a Scoville scale rating in the range of 10,000. Mind you, pure capsaicin can go as high as 16 million, and jalapeno only goes up to 10,000. But for a train meal to feature such intensity is surprising. I sweated, blew my nose a lot, teared through the meal and agonized. Best chile I've had on this trip, and something Zippy's must explore. Then a Bailey's Irish Cream in coffee accompanied by a Courvoisier cognac for the tiramisu. By Philadelphia I ended with a Jack Daniel's Black Label bourbon with a lot of lemon. I want to hail John P. and Helen C. for their fine service.

Washington, District of Columbia (DC), was founded in 1790 as the Nation's Capitol. There are 600,000 living here, although the population jumps to a million on a typical workday. The Washington metropolitan area, though, is greater than 5 million. There are 174 foreign embassies (most, well, 59, anyway, located on Massachusetts close to my hotel, the Fairfax...which I should mention is not worth the money I'm paying), with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquartered here.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant, staff to French General Lafayette during the American Revolutionary War, was commissioned by President George Washington in 1791, to lay out the concept of DC, so you can blame L'Enfant for those circles, squares and triangles that can terrify drivers. Actually, it is generally not well known that he was fired by Washington in 1792, so all of the real work had nothing to do with him.

The Washington Monument remains the highest edifice, although there is no real law specifically mentioning this obelisk (world's tallest at 555 feet) limiting heights. Those tall buildings in Rosslyn are at least 100 feet shorter. The First Hawaiian Bank building in Honolulu is at 429 feet and the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco is 853 feet high.

The population is 56% black, with the peak reached in 1970 at 70%, and there are around 75,000 immigrants. The first same sex marriages (joining 5 other states) will occur on Tuesday. DC rivaled New Orleans as the murder capitol of the world in the early 90's, but crime has significantly declined since then, moving east to Prince Georges County, because drug dealers and gangs kill each other. Even though high government employment should be buffering unemployment, the rate now stands at 12% in the District.

This is the most beautiful city in the world from late March through mid-April, as all the flowers begin to bloom. The Fall is not bad, either, although August is a horrible month to be here. This is the city for all the free stuff: concert on the Mall, museums, and more.

Metrorail (called Metro) began operations in 1976 and now has 106 miles and 1 million users a weekday, the second busiest rapid transit next to New York City. A line is reaching out to Dulles Airport, and should be ready in 2013, which means it will take at least until 2014. Union Station is #2 to Penn Station (NYC) in traffic. The one gripe I have about Metro is that the black, female drivers announce too quickly, quietly and poorly. They need to learn to enunciate and speak Nebraskan English.

Claudia and Suresh Patil joined me tonight for dinner at Sette Osteria, where we had a chance to catch up on all the news. We discussed a future safari to Kenya.

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