Friday, June 09, 2006

Morning happened in a Marriott in Newark, Delaware. Soma was up and active very early - this being her first conference attendance, she wanted to make sure she got to attend everything that was happening, and the schedule started at 8. Luckily for us, the conference center was right next door - had a nice, refreshing walk of all of 100 feet to see her off. That done, I settled into a nice long breakfast at the Marriott, with fresh made waffles and coffee and whatnots. They claimed eggs were good, and they would make anything out of them for you, but they won't give you hard-boiled ones. Said they took too long to make. Oh well. Breakfast done, I went upstairs, and used the free high-speed internet to surf around a bit on our laptop. addictivegames and orisinal are great ways to spend some time without the risks of download and install. But it gets to you after a while. Decided to play Warcraft instead - been a long time since I played it last. Died in just about every way possible. Decided it was not the "grown up" way to play, so browsed some more to find out a really good walkthrough - one that detailed every step that I need to take to get the max points and not die at all. Wonderful. That done, it was time for a quick shower. At about this point, 10-30-ish, Soma called to say she was hungry, and she had a brief break. So I whisked her away to a Panera Bread on Main Street, grabbed her a lunch bag - a sandwich with extra salt and mustard, a little cup of fruits, and a refreshing bottle of ice cream soda. After dropping her off, I was running close to the checkout time at the hotel - so packed the bags, stuffed them into the trunk of the Mini, checked out of the room, and settled down in the lounge of the hotel - with a power cord, headphones, and Warcraft on the laptop (plus the downloaded walkthrough), I was good to go. I went on saving the world from all sorts of baddies - undeads, wolves, Neurobians, and the like, for the next couple of hours. At 2-ish, I decided it was time to go searching for a movie hall - there was one about 5 miles away, and it was playing Cars at 2:20. It was a little non-intuitive to find my way through, but I managed, and Cars was a good way to spend the next 2 hours. I was back at the Clayton Hall Conference Parking by 5-ish, and Soma was back shortly after.

The conference part of our trip finally over, it was time for the goofing around part to start. Off to Philly, then! Philly was close - about an hour's drive, and half an hour to find the access to our bed and breakfast. We had reservations at the Thomas Bond House, which turned out to be a great choice - despite being a good $150 lighter on (Soma's :)) wallet - as it was living in a part of history itself. The house was featured in all the historical attraction maps of the area, which made us feel great. The little bedroom up on the third floor that we had parked in was nice and cozy - and much warmer than the uber-utilitarian quarters of the Marriott. Parking was in a lot next door - $14 for 24 hours. Our host, Andrea, made sure we knew how to work the keys and the door and so on. We had missed the wine and cheese, and since we were going to step out in a short while, were going to miss the fresh-baked cookies as well. I managed to log on to someone's unsecure wireless network, and fished out restaurant reviews from citysearch Philadelphia. We had originally planned Indian, preferably at Cafe Spice, but all the reviews from the recent years pointed at a marked degradation of quality - so we decided to let it pass. A Greek restaurant, "Dmitri's", caught our fancy. It was about 3/4-th of a mile away, which gave us a chance to walk through the neighborhoods of historical Philadelphia. It also gave me a chance to forget the name of the restaurant as well as the location, so we had to call up for directions again. The place was crowded - it was the first hole-in-the-wall Greek place I'd seen, the food must be great, as the ambiance was none, our personal favorite. We had to wait at the bar across the street, where Soma showed me the photographs from her field trip, and explained how ice wedges grow below the ground when permafrost reigned over the world. Around 9:30, we walked out of there and went towards the restaurant - and hit a perfect timing. We started off with some Babaghanoush, a plate of grilled vegetables, and some wonderful toasted pita slices. The entrees were fresh-grilled whole fish and soft shell crabs. All the dishes were marvelous- I definitely recommend the place. That done, we took a cab back, who thought "Thomas Bond House on 2nd Street" meant "Commerce Bank House on 2nd Street", resulting in a little more walking around.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Today was our only day in Philly - one day to see it all, and hit the road, and get back home. The hot breakfast at the B&B was great - wedge of fruit, slice of French Toast cooked sweet (like everyone does over here), ham, and sausages. Felt good to try out the home cooking. We checked out, dumped the luggage into the trunk of the Mini (still in the parking lot), and started our trip down Philly's history. We hardly took a few steps before seeing a weird concoction - a bus that looks like a boat - and called up the "Ride the Ducks" company to book a place on the amphibious ride at 3.Took some shots of our nice little bed and breakfast, and moved on. First stop, the "Philosophical Hall". Very pretty, specially on a bright day like this. We did pass the "Welcome Park", that was right on the porch of our B&B, but that looked like a junk heap - and the "City Tavern" was nothing to write home about. So, no pictures there.

From there, we went around to the First National Bank, and entered the Carpenter's Hall from the rear. We did not realize the "Bicentennial Bell" was on the top of a tower - we passed by it in this route, but had to come back and search for it a while later. Carpenter's Hall had all these people dressed in clothes back in time, and they were doing little songs and dances for the tourists.

On to the Second National Bank, which was being repaired - hence no pictures of the building front, which I'm sure is impressive like all the others in those times. There's a picture gallery inside it, with a little printed sign saying it's open through the construction, so we had to see it. All it had was a huge number of portraits. I guess I'm not much a portrait person, as after "ooh" and "aah" for the first few, all the others seemed to look the same - in those days, it may have been a trend to make people appear in a similar fashion in all portraits. Everybody was famous, and they all made America what she is today, so we appreciated it all, just didn't find it very exciting, and were on a tight tour-hopping timeline. The best part of the gallery was a better map of the historical areas and the tourist spots around.

The next stop, from the new tourist map we had, was Franklin Court, but we found the "National Liberty Museum" instead, which seemed to be a private, modern addition to the antiques of the area. It was set on a more modern tone, and does not really go with the ideas of America's independence from the British - it's more focused on hand-blown glass, which is great, as it symbolizes freedom (don't as me why), some modern art, and a staircase wall with some 9/11 images. It did have a lot of plasma televisions thrown in, and they charged us $3 (student rate) to get in. The guard asked if any of us were students, and Soma said yes, and he said "well, I'll give you both student rates anyway". We were thrilled. The next couple that came in said none of them were students, and they got the student rate as well! We were not so thrilled at that point. Looked like this was a waste of good people's resources, who donated to promote history, and got a bunch of plasma TVs in a critically located building, rooms full of artistic blown glass with price tags that have nothing to do with anything, and a very weak clientele. It did have a nice display of mirrors, though - you could stand at this one place (we had to stand a foot before the point, to compensate for below-standard height), and see a hundred images of yourself in front of you - with single mirrors, no infinite reflections from parallel mirrors. It was great. Oh - they also had this funny chess set.

From there, we went through the gates and entered Franklin Court. Could not figure out what pictures to take there, as it had these skeletons of buildings (just the frame), and little peep holes to look down and see the actual remains of the walls. Somewhat like Nalanda, but a little more modern - about 300 years back, instead of 1500. But then we are talking about a country where one of the oldest historical artifacts, the Liberty Bell, is younger than our home at Akrur Dutta Lane, Kolkata. Anyway, the museum inside Franklin Court had one very interesting room - with a huge number of phones, using which you could call one of about a hundred phone numbers that were present in Ben Franklin's "blackberry", and could hear a little recording of the person speaking. It was fun. We skipped the educational movie. No pictures here.

From there, we went in search for the Bicentennial Bell - it was a little bit of a backtrack in our route. We reached the spot, and looked inside the National Park Services building and outside - we found some restrooms, but no bell or signs pointing to one. We finally spotted it up on a high tower right in front of the NPS building. No pictures of the bell, but here's a snap of the Queen, with the profile that made the philatelists very happy. I remember having a collection of 9 stamps with the queen's profile, all in different colors. And wasn't the movie "Nine Queens" based on one of those sheets as well?

From there, we went towards the Independence Hall, where we were told they have run out of tickets for the day. We proceeded to the Liberty Bell - the last time I was there, the bell was standing in an open area of the park - now they created a huge building on it, and you had to enter through airport-like security checks. Apparently, the bell was moved from the Independence Hall to the middle of the park (The Mall) on a dump trunk half a century earlier, but to move it from the park to inside the museum, they had to spend close to a hundred thousand dollars. Also, they have the bell delicately suspended with vibration sensors and whatnots - and we are talking about a bell that, like the Bicentennial Bell today, was supposed to work, as a bell, in open weather, by a common guard on duty to ring it, all year long for years and years. It's odd that American taxpayers spend money in so many weird ways, and yet the average income is in the $30k-s, and thousands die in hurricanes where footage looks like a developing country under nature's wrath.

Next, it was time to attend the "Ride the Ducks" Tour. We had purchased our tickets over the phone, and proceeded to the little ticket booth (with inter-booth communication over cell phones!) around the corner from the Liberty Bell. Getting our tickets was easy and quick - there was no line in the booth. Then we thought, since we had more than an hour and a half before our tour (it was 1:20 now), we could shift to the tour at 2 instead. Now, that was complicated - the customer service agent did something that crashed her computer, and she had to call for help, and the help had to catch a bus from around town (kidding) - anyway, it took a long time, and there was a large line in front of the booth by that time. Many minutes later, the supervisor restored normalcy, and gave us our tickets, and we were glad to walk out of the mess, only to find we had one adult and one child ticket. Back to the booth, complain, get taken care of, etc. - finally got resolved and all was hunky-dory. We went around the corner, stopped by the visitor's center for a quick break, did not like the T'shirts on sale there, so got seated on the amphibious bus instead. We also got little duck quackers, and everyone aboard had fun with those. The next few pictures are from the bus ride - both on land and in water, under the Ben Franklin bridge. At the end of it, they wanted us to pay $20 for a picture in front of the duck-buses, but they won't give us just one 4x6 - you had to buy enough to send a copy to everyone you know, so we went the cheap skate way and just took a snap in front of the bus. The ride was a great way to learn a lot about Philadelphia's history, and was a compact hour, definitely worth the time and money. The buses were a great design back in time, as they were the first amphibious vehicles where the wheels continued to rotate when they went into water, with the screw engaging with a T-joint into the gear. They were originally designed as military transporters, but are a great tourist ride now. Apparently the company bought the buses from the military at $2000 a piece, and changed the transmission to automatic and the style to tourist-friendly.

From there, we figured we could enter the Independence Hall park - but not get inside the building, since they had run out of tickets. That was great- all we wanted to see were the outside of the buildings anyway. The duck-bus operator had mentioned that the Independence Hall faced the rear - so that's where we took the photos from. From there to South Street, where we got grossed out of our plans to buy T'shirts as none of them were non-R-rated, but got to see these vividly painted buildings at the corner of 3rd and South.

After South Street, it was 5-ish, and we had nothing else to do. We were not really hungry either, but decided it was better to get an early start to head back home than waste time doing nothing. After giving our feet a brief rest in one of the parks around Carpenter's Hall, we caught a cab to Chinatown. Much smaller than the ones in New York, Philly's Chinatown seemed more tourist-oriented, with a lot of nice, large gift shops around. Definitely more organized than the ones in NYC. After checking out some great furniture which we had no intention of buying, and a jewelry box for Soma which we bought right away, we asked for restaurant recommendations from the shopkeeper, and she pointed us to Penang. An excellent choice - it was a huge place, smelling of wonderfully spicy food. We ordered a Roti Canai to tide us over to the entrees, a spicy house noodle, and a "jumbo shrimp in spicy sauce". The shrimp was the best I've had in Eastern cuisine - the curry was thick, spicy, and made with bits of dried shrimp. Great!

That was that - we hopped on a cab that brought us straight to our garage, loaded the GPS up on the laptop, and got home in just over 2 hours. I did get the first "blue screen of death" on the thinkpad - but luckily we were already on the NJ Turnpike by then. The vibration of the car with the low battery seems to be a (yet another) deadly combination for Windows.