Thursday, June 28, 2012

Baltimore

Baltimore has a terrible reputation. Lonely Planet’s website - our default tourist information outlet - states “B’more, Bawlmer, and the less flattering ‘Body-more’ (if London had this town’s murder rate there’d be 3560 bodies floating in the Thames every year), Baltimore dares you to visit.”  Additionally, The Wire, a popular “cop show” (quotes are theirs) set in Baltimore, probably does not help with this perception.  Though I haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure my friends were warning me when I told them I was going to Baltimore and they responded, “have you seen The Wire?”.  Thus, having had limited experience beyond the above, we landed in White Marsh, MD - a suburb of Baltimore and where the Megabus from New York City deposits you - on a lovely June afternoon mentally prepared for a pretty rough stay.

The Tripadvisor Baltimore travel forum had instructed us to take the #35 local MTA bus into Baltimore, picking up near the White Marsh Park & Ride where the Megabus stops.  Our first observation upon unloading was that the Maryland Transit Administration doesn’t really want you to use their system.  The park & ride, which you think would have plenty of maps and signs to show you where the various buses pickup as well as their destinations, was absolutely devoid of any type of signage.  Not only are there no maps or signs but one must look very hard for the actual bus stops.  Additionally, there are no sidewalks in the area, which makes walking along the busy street rather dangerous.

Luckily, the travel forum had equipped us with pretty good directions and a foreknowledge of the lack of pedestrian protections, so we ventured away from the park & ride, across a busy street and through a business park, finally arriving at the Hampton Inn where the #35 stops.  Upon arriving, due to the aforementioned poor signage, we were confused about which direction of travel we needed.  Fortunately for us, there was one other person waiting at the stop and we asked her for help.

Our first interaction with a Baltimore local proved to be emblematic of our overall experience.  She was exceedingly helpful, very friendly, and even asked for our email address in order to make sure we got to where we needed to be (which she has since done, also asking about our experience).  We were gobsmacked by her level of assistance, interest in our plans, and attention.  We immediately began to adjust our preconceptions.

When we got on the bus - the correct one, thanks to our new friend - the bus driver was helpful and another passenger even struck up a conversation with us, asking if we’d just taken Megabus, which was apparently evident by our suitcases.  Of course, the ‘If you mess with an MTA employee, it won’t end well for you’ sign placed near the driver (accompanied by an image of a fist and handcuffs) was noticeable but many cities have similar warnings.  In actuality, this seemingly routine bus ride from White Marsh to Broadway & Madison would prove to be the extent of our experience of the rough side of Baltimore.

When we checked into our hotel in the Midtown area, near Mt Vernon, we were told of the free city bus which picked up right across the street and would take us into the Inner Harbor area within minutes.  A visit to the Tourist Information Center would enlighten us to the whole system of free buses called the Charm City Circulator and, although struggling slightly with timing issues, this proved to be an amazing service utilized by both tourists and locals alike.  If nothing else, the new, air conditioned buses were a welcome respite from the early June heat.

We spoke and otherwise interacted with many locals and rarely in a service capacity.  These were just people going about their day and after each exchange (seriously, EACH exchange) we were overwhelmed by the kindness and friendliness we received.  We had considered the possibility that we’ve just become accustomed to the inconsiderate nature of the Brits and that we were experiencing the equivalent of people simply saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’; normal and expected behaviour.  But, even our friend from Washington DC, who had come to visit us for a few hours, was equally charmed by the people and also commented on their amazing kindness.  Now we understand why Baltimore is nicknamed Charm City (we had previously assumed the nickname to be sarcastic).

We utilised the Charm City Circulator often during our stay, sometimes just for sightseeing (return trip to Fort McHenry) but usually for transportation (Penn Station, Federal Hill).  The view from Federal Hill was lovely and the Inner Harbor area was diverting.  We were also fortunate to be in Baltimore immediately preceding the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations; it was nice to see the decorations and preparations without having to deal with the crowds.

Baltimore is a lovely city and the people of Baltimore are definitely charming.  The Charm City Circulator makes getting around the city very easy and pleasant but, being a rather small city (comparable in size to, and reminiscent of, Seattle), walking is also a viable (and pleasant) option.  We enjoyed our time in Baltimore and felt relatively safe throughout.  Although the reality of Baltimore, as seen by The Wire and Lonely Planet, may be bleak and disturbing, we experienced nothing resembling those realities.  We definitely wouldn’t mind returning to the area and are looking forward to the possibility.

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