posted Jan 10, 2011, 6:41 AM by Quoc-Anh Vuong
The Amtrak Carolinian number 79, Southbound train starts from New York, slight turns to the West to pick up more passengers from New Jersey and Philadelphia, then heads south through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, and finally to South Carolina. We boarded this route last weekend to take Bảo back to school. It is a 5 hrs driving affair, so previously we had been using the van and making it a short weekend vacation for the whole family. With Bảo's Student Advantage discount card and Thuỵ and Huân at half price, we purchased the train tickets for much less, average of $50 round-trip train ride for each. Comparing to air plane, trains has ample seating space, two row of seats on each side, and we can even sit in the eating car, with big table, sipping coffee while admiring the scenery through the big window. Oh yeah, the electrical outlets! Available right at the seat, so no need to worry of the laptop running out of juice. Also, the fold-out tray has more space to accommodate the 17" laptop instead of 10" netbook, even when the seat in front is fully inclined.

On Saturday, before heading to the Alexandria train station we picked up the subway sandwiches for our lunch, since there is no free drink or snack on train. [Digress] As usual, I picked the hot pastrami, with the tender corn-beef slices, encrusted with peppercorn and spices. The only thing that I would like to protest is that hot pastrami is not one of the 5-dollar-foot-long deal selections [/Digress]. We arrived at the station early, and the Masonic Temple is right across the street, thus we decided to spend a quick tour there. The Masonic Temple is a monument, built by Free Mason society members, to honor the society as well as the America founding father: George Washington. From the outside, the tall tower structure seemed even higher since the building is built on a hill, dominate the whole area. We did not take the elevator to the top, but I bet on the clear sky, we can easily see the Washington Monument from the tower. Inside, it is magnificent. Everything is built with granite and marble. Even the whole stairs, with baluster and hand rails, are carved marble blocks. The unrivaled craftsmanship along with finest materials, the monument is built as if to endure time and events play out in the country.

After the tour, we drove across the street into the train station parking lot. Inside, the machine scanned our ticket confirmation and printed for us all tickets. As the train pulled into the station, it made two quick and loud whistle. The train conductor placed the steps at the door for us to board the passenger car. The cars were pretty packed, did not have seats available for us to sit together, thus we had to split up, and took our seats as the train started to move. About 15min later, I asked Bảo & Thuỵ to go to the eating car, and see if there are table available for all of us. Thuỵ came back and we all grabbed our backpack and walked toward the eating car. The eating car has 10 big tables, with bench seats on both side of each table. We took two table, and spread out our foods. Eating on the train was much more enjoyable, and sure beat the driving the van for 5 hours. The train stopped at several stations before pulling into Raleigh. Since the Raleigh station is a fairly remote bus stop, bus comes by only when there are passengers wanting to getting off. So, we approached a taxi and ask for the price to the Brownstone hotel, which we were going to stay for one night. The taxi driver in front of the line reluctantly replied in a disappointing voice, "Only five bucks". I quickly realized that: waiting for customers, all taxis would form a line, the one in front of the line will take the first customers and the next taxi would pull up taking the first position awaiting for the next customer. So, if the taxi fare is so low, only $5, and that will cause the driver to lost his place in line, which he had been waiting all this time.

Checked into the hotel, dropped off our luggage in the room, we then headed out to Bảo dorm, which is only about 1/2 mile from the hotel. However, walking against the 12 degree-F wind chill factor, it felt like a long journey across Bering strait. At the dorm, we helped Bảo put away the clothes and stuffs, and walked to the main street to find something to eat. Again ... we walked in the cold, I now missed the van! Bảo disclosed that Bà's gift, a closed-knit ribbed winter hat came at perfect timing and occasion. We came up to a fairly crowded restaurant, David's Dumpling and Noodle Bar, and with a reasonable price range, average of $10 for dinner, and decided to check it out. Inside we had to wait about 20minute, and all agree that we rather wait here in the warm, comfortable waiting area of the restaurant than to trek in the cold with uncertainty of finding another restaurant in the price range. Besides, we all wanted to check out "Phở", which is one of the noodle bowls they had on the menu.
During the wait, I talked to the lady at the register, and learned that the place is only about 6-month old. Her family is Chinese, but David, her husband was grew up in Chợ Lớn, Vietnam. The restaurant decoration is modern and hip, with huge framed photos of the David, owner and chef, is cooking with broad smiling. Dining wares are all white and modern shapes, like wavy plates, cone shape bowls, and triangle dishes. The place was festive, and packed. Only opened for 6months the place looked like doing very well, even though the foods were not that ... authentic. Western Caucasians in North Carolina could not tell the differences, I guess.

Done with dinner, it was only around 8pm and I still feel a bit ... empty. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small convenient store to pick up snacks for tomorrow train ride, and perhaps tonight at the hotel. I picked up two cup of noodles, the spicy kind! It's not that often that I find this spicy kind. Like old time, we spent our night in a small two double-beds hotel room; with Bảo, it seemed complete, that we all together and as one single unit. With that happy feeling, I slowly drifted to sleep, disregard the uncomfortable situation of being sandwiched in a double bed.

We woke up early the next day, and located the closest Subway sandwiches store. On the way to the sandwiches shop, we picked up donuts at the Dunkin, especially the French Curls. We got to Subway to buy our lunch meal, and again I ordered the pastrami. But strange, the lady put two frozen hamburger-looking slabs into the bread. When we repeated the order, she said that this is the "pastrami" at that store. We had no choice but to give it a try. It's tasted more like country-fried steak than the corn beef slices. Bảo walked and stayed with us at the bus station, until the bus arrived. The bus took us to the Raleigh station, there we waited for about half hour before the train came. Thuỵ took the opportunity to do his homework, Huân was lying on his stomach, enjoying his book, and Hương was catching up on the movies. I went outside to the track, snapped few photos.

The train home was much more quiet. Since it fairly empty, we found our seats, next to each other. We decided to stay in our seats and not go to the eating car. Each of us was chasing our own thoughts and activities; I watched countless of previously recorded tv-shows on the netbook. The train pulled into the Alexandria around 5pm. We drove home, none of us admitting it, but I think we all missed Bảo. It was then that I realized how valuable it was, for the last three weeks, that Bảo was with us. I am now looking forward to March, to the Spring Break.