Mary PW Chin 穷孩子
Richmond, Virginia

I was at Virginia Commonwealth University for a collaborative project. Everybody was so accepting, helpful and friendly that I was in a constant culture-shock.

The 2-week experience was in sharp contrast to my brief visit to Chicago the previous year, where airport and immigration staff were downright abusive. In fact, they jeered at me for having a Malaysian passport. Chicago Airport was the only airport where I had no one to turn to for help.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

We were there for the Monte Carlo 2005 conference. Since it was going to be a conference hotel, I requested for a room on high floors so that I could enjoy nice views out of the window. Request granted, only to find that all the surrounding buildings were at least as high! Additionally, my room overlooked a car park! Oh well, I should have expected so -- that wasn't my first visit to that part of the world anyway.

They thought we were mad
We visited the Lookout Mountain in great anticipation for adventure, only to find polished and flattened rocks -- no rugged, sweaty fun. We heard more music from hidden speakers than from insects or birds. When we enquired whether there were tracks leading to Ruby Falls, people thought we were mad. Their answer was: just take the car there!
Not Even in Encyclopaedia or on Stamps

Tennessee Aquarium, however, did not fail to impress us with seahorses and sea dragons which I have yet to come across, not even in encyclopaedia or on stamps. And of course, we found Nemo. But be careful -- some of the flora and fauna were fake!

Harry Porter @ Chattanooga Airport
And oh yes, we met Harry Porter there. On arrival we found a brass head of Harry Porter in the arrival hall. But he didn't look like Harry Potter at all... I got utterly confused that my boss had to tell me, "It's Porrrrter."
Amazon delivery to the hotel

And oh yes I took advantage of the dollar-to-pound exchange by ordering a book from rather than Fortunate enough, the book arrived hours before I was due to fly home.

Washington DC

Washington DC is atypical of an American city:


We stayed in Omni Shoreham, the conference hotel. As promised on their website, the windows could indeed be open. I tested this on entering the room, but couldn't shut the window after opening!

Do hotel rating systems take into account dirty dishes from room service? At Omni Shoreham, corridors outside the rooms were dotted with dirty dishes, almost indefinitely. I rang both the reception and the room service, requesting for the aftermath to be cleared. It didn't work; I didn't order for a second room service.

Hello Ethiopians!

The visit to Washington gave me the first encounter with Ethiopians, although I did not have the chance to try an Ethiopian restaurant. I managed to distinguish Ethiopians from Sudanese by their crucifixes/crosses. It was a delightful encounter because I only knew Ethiopia by:

Meeting Ethopians in Washington was very much like meeting Tibetans in India. Memorable and delightful.
I've been to Mount Zion
When the conference programme finished for one of the days, I walked down the trail behind the hotel. The trail seemed to go on and on for a while, as the sun began to set. And then, lo and behold, I could not believe my eyes. Two deer stood on the little hill dotted with tomb stones. Deer in Washington? What an apparition! I stood in awe; the deer stood motionless on the inclined slope; the sign read 'Mount Zion Cemetery'. A jogger passed by, and turned back, asking whether I was all right! I walked on a little further, still in a state of disbelief. On my way back, the apparition had vanished. I came by the same way the next day... no deer.

I came home and told my friend about the deer. He said I was hallucinating.

well-polished basilica and cathedral
I navigated the Metro to get to the Basilica. First of all, the escalators in the Metro station were long and near-vertical enough to be scary; definitely worse than London Waterloo's. The basilica was a bit too well-polished. Oh well, what could I expect in North America?

As I was taking my final random stroll around the area before saying goodbye to DC, I came across 'Cathedral Avenue'. Although I started off thinking perhaps I could feel my way to the zoo, I decided to target Cathedral Avenue instead. At the junction, two opposing turns led to Cathedral Avenue. So which leads to the Cathedral? An interesting bet, naturally turned out to be bad. But it did give me a grand tour through the autumn woods on a beautiful autumn morning. I started heading back for the opposite turn, hoping to find an obvious structure of a cathedral. I walked on and on; no sign. And then, oh wow, I could see the awesome structure -- unmistakably the cathedral. From there I went closer and closer, and ended up in the cathedral itself. The handsome structure did turned out to be the cathedral indeed. However, as I walked closer and closer, its beauty faded with every step I took. It was better admired far than near. Oh well. Another over-polished site -- just like the basilica.

A peaceful demonstration
I was walking behind the hotel when I heard a mixture of voice and noise. Perhaps another conference started as ours finished. But then moving closer the decibels seemed to come from the opposite direction. Could it be a school where teachers and students were in vocal resonance of some sort? Or some charismatic worshippers gathering in one of the residences? And then I found a group of people holding up wooden notices, reciting a mantra of some sort. Around the corner, two police cars parked by the road, with the policemen seated in the car. And so I felt safe. I was very curious and felt like going closer to read the wooden notices but I really didn't want to mess myself up.
Reno, Nevada

This is a gambling hub but not as bad as I thought; or rather, not as bad as I had been warned against. The surrounding snow-capped mountains were pretty. Grand Sierra Resort was safe; I came downstairs in the middle of the night to find food. Food was cheap; there was a wide range from budget up to fine-dining. The Alaskan halibut was delicious. Before the trip I wondered why should the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting be held at a casino resort. The answer jumped at me the instant I arrived. The resort was comprehensive: eating, shopping outlets, cinema, hair saloon, and all sorts. I did have a haircut - not by that saloon, but by my long-lost school-mate whom I visited on transit via San Francisco before returning to Guildford!

I spent enough number of days there to pick up the characteristic scent of the hotel. Yet I could not work out whether it was a fragrance (positive) or an odour (negative). It wasn't neutral either. Probably that sort of a mixture when one tries to overcome an odour by applying perfumes. On the last night of my stay I understood, as fellow guests walked down the corridor with a dog.

Being the happy Smithsonian customer that I am, I was hoping to get a lifelong supply of Smithsonian T-shirts. It was disappointing that I couldn't find a Smithsonian shop in any of the three airports I flew via: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Reno. The Smithsonian T-shirt which I acquired during the trip to Washington last year was smashing in design, quality and cutting.