Sunday, May 3, 2009

Back to Africa (and Asia and the Caribbean)

Today I took a trip around the world, all without leaving my city. If you consider that an embassy in a country is actually the territory of the other country, then I stepped on the foreign territories of Thailand, Indonesia, Botswana, Zambia and Haiti. Today was the annual open house at many of the embassies along Embassy Row, which goes up Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues from Dupont Circle. It’s a chance for residents to see inside some of these buildings, some of which are historical houses, and for the countries to show themselves off, encourage awareness of their culture and tourists to visit, etc. I ended up visiting only embassies of countries that I had visited before, mostly to see how they promote places I’ve seen, but I was just as interested in the buildings and their interiors as I was about the countries themselves. It’s just interesting to see the spaces where diplomatic business is carried out. Unless you have an important reason to visit an embassy, one is unlikely to get inside one (and most of the time to get a visa to enter a country, it’s a different entrance or building all together).

I first visited Thailand’s embassy down in Georgetown because I just happened to have other business just a couple of blocks away in the morning. They had set up tables in several places that were selling all manner of things from Thai clothing and cloth (silk) to prepackaged food and leather handbags. In the back kitchen were several caterers selling food for lunch. It’s a new building that’s quite large.

Then I headed up to the area where most embassies are. The one I wanted to see the most because the building is an old, historical house was Indonesia’s. The line was long and stretched the entire width of the front of the building. It was because they were searching people’s bags, but it moved quite quickly. The embassy’s website gives a history about the house. An excerpt:
The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places…

Thomas F. Walsh, the mansion's first owner, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen. He made a fortune in Colorado's gold mining industry as the sole owner and developer of the Camp Bird mine at Ouray, Colorado…

Although Mrs. Walsh occupied the house until her death in 1932, the property's title had been earlier handed to her daughter Evalyn. As the daughter of a wealthy socialite couple and the wife of influential newspaper owner Edward B. McLean, Evalyn Walsh McLean was well-known in Washington . Evalyn inherited the house, but left it vacant for a time while she lived at "Friendship," the McLean family's estate in Washington , D.C.

Evalyn Walsh McLean is also distinguished as the last private owner of the fabulous 44 ½ carat Hope Diamond - the sale of which was negotiated at the Walsh Mansion by Pierre Cartier, the famous jeweler.
What an amazing house! Right inside the front door is an enormous staircase, and three stories above that is a stained-glass dome.



Off this central room is what was probably the dining room, which is huge. On one wall is a built-in Baroque pipe organ!


The house is in the French Beaux-arts style, but it’s a bit jarring and odd to see the structure and d├ęcor punctuated by very different Indonesian symbols – a coat of arms or statues of lions. As I was leaving, in the room adjacent to the dining room, there was a group of musicians playing traditional instruments. Some of these instruments are metallic xylophone-like plates that one has to hit hard with something that actually looks like your standard hammer. Yes, it makes a very loud and metallic sound, and the whole thing, with various drums, was just deafening and chaotic. Well, I’m sure to any Indonesian ears, it was normal, but I really would have rather heard the organ, thank you. It was enough to drive me outside, which one got to by going through a newer addition to the house, which is probably the main entrance and main business area of the embassy.


Then, as a side note, I walked around Dupont Circle to find a place to eat lunch. I found another restaurant in the Five Guys hamburger chain, which bills itself as the best hamburger in D.C. There was one in my former neighborhood, Columbia Heights, but I was waiting for a time when it was more necessary to eat out and when I could choose to try this chain. I saw Michelle Obama admit on TV the other day that she has snuck out of the White House several times and has gone to eat at some restaurants in town, and this is one of them (not this particular location, however). The hamburgers are good, but still not as good as my all-time favorite place – Dick’s in Seattle (a drive-in place from the 50s). The fries are good too – nice and salty.

Then I went to Haiti’s embassy. The line there was very long too – probably more than 100 feet out the door. But I think it was just the herd mentality – if there are a lot of people waiting outside, then there must be something good inside, and it just feeds on itself. But I can’t imagine why so many Americans are so interested in Haiti. After going inside, however, there almost was nothing to visit. I spent probably a half hour waiting in the line, which continued inside through the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor, around through one room and really only to get a third of a Styrofoam cup full of punch. Sure, it had Haitian rum in it, but it was so little, and they were being so inefficient about handing it out (a non-Haitian woman asking each person if they wanted alcohol in their punch or not). The only thing to look at were colorful Haitian paintings in each room, which I saw many of at the paintings markets in Port au Prince myself many years ago. There was a man, a painter, giving a lecture in French (translated) in one room, but only a few people were interested. The rest of us were just standing in the line that snaked through the room to get our free punch. Regarding the building itself, there was nothing noteworthy or impressive about it.

Up the road a few doors was the Zambian embassy. A much shorter line, but again, very little to look at – well, absolutely nothing new to me. At least they had made the effort to set up several tables in one room and were displaying handicrafts. People were so impressed by them and were taking pictures of the large carvings. To me, it was stuff I had seen a million times before all over Africa.

On to another street to visit the Botswana embassy. Their focus was more on tourism, and so they had booklets about all the wildlife parks you could visit. As with the carvings at the Zambian embassy, I had been there, done that. Both the Zambia and Botswana embassies were in buildings that had nothing noteworthy.

I had planned to go to a different area farther north in the city to see another cluster of embassies, but by this time it was 3:00, and the whole event was going to be over in an hour, and given the wait time in lines at each place, I decided not to visit any more. And besides, it would have taken me farther from home, which meant I would have had a longer bike ride home, and my legs were already tired of standing in the Haitian embassy line. So I called it quits. I’ll do the others next year. I heard somebody saying the Bangladesh embassy was the best (another country I’ve been to). But it was all worth it because I got inside Indonesia’s embassy!

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