The mix of excitement and anxiety has been building for over a week now in anticipation of going to Washington for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America. On Tuesday, Barack Obama, the offspring of an absent father and a single mother will become the new president. The Canadian media generally and here in Toronto have increasingly focused on the historic day when an African American takes the reins of the most powerful country on the face of the earth. Today, the Saturday Star devoted the entire front page to Obama. In big bold letters it wrote HOPE, speaking about the dream that Obama has ignited in the hearts of many across the world.
Somehow, and this may be a feeling shared by world citizens elsewhere, the majority of Canadians have embraced Obama (as they never did George Bush) as their own president too. Never mind that the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is one unloved person right now. Obama, it has successfully sold himself as the leader of the free world, reaching for the same stature as John F. Kennedy and other American presidents that have inspired the world. Now, whether this is all hype and no substance remains to be seen in the weeks and months ahead as Obama begins to wrestle with real global issuesâ€”the economy, global war on terror, wars in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and so forth.
For now though, there is pure excitement in the air. Canadians as well as Americans are taking time to salute this son of Africa in style. Whole busloads have left Canadian cities for Washington to be part of this history. Canadians from coast to coast have participated in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) contest to select 49 songs for Obama. Over the past week, thousands have voted on a list of 100 Canadian songs to be winnowed down to 49 songs to be presented to Obama. CBC hopes these songs capture the spirit of what in means to be a Canadian. One of the songs, Cette Vie, was performed by the African Guitar Summit, a group of African Canadian artists from Ghana, Kenya, Burundi, Guinea, and Madagascar who came together to make music. Whatever the final cut, the CBC has tapped into the popular sentiments that Obama is everyday president for everyone, not just Americans.
So, the excitement in my household has been building as we anticipate being in Washington, DC tomorrow, Sunday, January 18th 2009. We arrive at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWIA) in the afternoon. The plan is to hit the ground running, and it has been an intense planning, mainly because of the anticipated number of people planning to attend the inauguration on Tuesday, January 20th. A whopping 2.5 million is expected to cram Washington on Tuesday.
My plan is simple enough. Take a flight from Buffalo International because it is cheaper than everything else and fly to Washington. Once on the ground, the drive is to start collecting stories, on the street, in restaurants and cafes, and on the front of Capitol Hill where the swearing-in will take place. And take picturesâ€”lots of pictures. I bought a new camera, a Canon 50D with an 18-200 mm lens for the purpose. Whether I get to use it effectively is another matter.
However, the reality is different. The first big hurdle to overcome is getting from the airport to the hotel which is situated just across the river in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the grave of John F. Kennedy. On MapQuest, the internet engine that gives driving directions, it takes just under 6 minutes from our Hotel to the front of the White House. However, because of increased security, there are numerous road closures. The three or four bridges that connect Virginia with DC will be closed on the eve of the inauguration and will not be opened until Wednesday morning.
To deal with anticipated traffic jam, we ditched our rented Hertz car, hoping to catch a ride on the train. But then we discovered that AMTRAK from BWIA to Washington DC is sold out. Then we thought of renting a taxi from airport to hotel, but the taxis have doubled their fare 150 percent, costing $250 up from $100. Now, we are back to renting a car to drive one-way to our Hotel, then dropping it off and using public means for the return trip after the party is over on Wednesday.
That said, the inaugural website warns that moving around core DC where the events are taking place will be mostly on footâ€”you will not be able to drive anywhere since private cars are banned in that neighbourhood. There will be an unprecedented security of Secret Service, FBI, Homeland security and thousands of police from across the USAâ€”all told, over 42,000 personnel will be on the ground. There will be helicopters overhead, sharpshooters on every rooftop, fighter jets in the air and a whole lot more. If this sounds like a war-zone, it is.
To get near the swearing in grounds, even with my ticket will require some serious legwork. For that, I am ready as can be. My fervent hope is to be able to tour Washington Sunday evening, perhaps grab a quick visit to the grave of my hero John F. Kennedy, then travel by Metro to DC, and do a bit of walking to the front of the White House, and Capitol Hill, before continuing the exploration on Monday, January 19th, 2009. On D-Day, I hope to get up very early, either taking the Metro to DC or walking across the bridge to Capitol Hill, and be in line by 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. for the endless security screening that will follow.
Since the weather is part of the equation, I will not know until early Tuesday whether to dress very warm or go easy. The anticipated temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (1 deg. Celsius), which is not too bad coming from the deep freeze Toronto has had for the last week. Still, it will not be easy to know how to dressâ€”dress too heavily, and with the temperature rising in the day, you will be sweating buckets; dress too lightly, and with temperature plummeting to sub-zero and you are going to freeze your butt. It is a very sensitive balancing actâ€”just like what Obama has to do once he is president. He will have to learn to juggle hundreds of different demands for his attention without seeming to sweat. What he does and how he does them will separate him from the also-ran and the great presidents.
And so, as I prepare to be a part of history, I am left with a sense of giddiness as well as sheer terror. The idea of navigating my way through more than two millions crowd is daunting if not outright scary. At the same time, I am one of the lucky few, actually 350,000 to get a ticket to the actual event, but what does that really mean? Will it mean standing in the rain for five hours, or worst, in sub-zero temperature with frozen toes, head and fingers? What will be the exact cost (not in monetary terms) be to participate in this historic celebration?
For now, I am content to continue packing my stuff, to check and double check that I have all I need to make the day what it isâ€”a great day for world democracy and history.
Oloya prepares for Washington DC