McDonald’s and the Big Pizza

Everything is big in America except a few things.

Eating Pizza in Washington D.C.
Journalists having pizza in a Washington D.C. pub.

I wanted to have a burger in the McDonald’s. And I did that in Washington D.C. That was fun really. But I realized that the same wasn’t a fashionable thing in the US, at least not among those whom I met in my trip. “Burger at McDonald’s?” everyone would frown at me. “Boy, I never go there and you never go there again.” Poor in America are overweight than richer ones. That’s another irony in the country. Obesity is a huge problem, I had known but seeing very very fat people walking around was quite an experience. You see all kinds of people. As Lara would tell me in New York at the end of my visit, “you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear people talking in 10 different languages here in New York’s train compartment.”

Back to D.C. We were all new to the city and knew very little about the places to dine. We went up to George Town area of the city to have something for dinner. Rhino Bar and Pump house on 3295 M Street, North West turned out to be our destination for the evening. Apart from South Asians, folks from Arabic speaking group were also in the team. We decided to have pizza. (Again there was a surprise. The medium sized pizza turned out to be bigger than the big pizza that we have in Kathmandu. Well, not only in Kathmandu but in all other cities represented in the group. We started sharing the pizzas as we knew it wasn’t possible to finish alone. I will be writing more about this at the end of this article.)

As they waited for pizzas to come, folks started cracking jokes and talking with each other. A black young couple (teen) was seated on the table on the right of my side. I was occasionally throwing glances at them but wasn’t sure what exactly to do.

I was restless. Don’t know why but I was wandering and there not sitting on the table waiting for pizzas to come. I went outside, just to get a glimpse of the evening Georgetown.

journalists eating pizza in washington d.c.

A boy was standing at the gate of the pub checking the identity cards of people who wished to enter inside. He was young and didn’t seem like doing the job for long. I decided to talk with the gatekeeper. This was part of my mission to interact with as many people, general Americans, as possible in those three weeks. I wasn’t there to listen to tireless lectures from so called experts on immigration policy, democracy and journalism. I was there to learn how an American on the street thinks and feels. Continue reading

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Being Rich, for the Moment. Thank You American Taxpayers

April 3 was the day to be rich, really rich in a sense. We went to the office of Delphi International Program of World Learning, agency that was administering the IV program. It’s weird that I actually forget how many hundred dollars bill I received that day from Delphi. (Well, the money actually belonged to the US State Department. Or to the American taxpayers to whom I must be thankful.) I think 45. In the form of travel cheques. Boy, it took me more than 10 minutes to sign on those pieces of paper. That was my first introduction with the world of travel cheques. While I was nervously (and carefully) signing on those papers, Anna Karkovska McGlew, the Program Associate, was constantly warning us in non-American accent not to carry all the cheques and the purchase agreement form together. In fact, that was printed in the PAF itself. “Even if you lost these cheques,” she said. “That piece of paper will help you claim the money. So put that separately.”

Folks were patiently listening to her. No one wanted to take a chance. After all, you don’t always carry 45 hundred dollars in a single pocket. It was really an irony that I was carrying that money (biggest sum I have ever carried in my life so far) and walking around the city of D.C. as if I was a broke. I mean there was no fear of loosing the money. They were really equal to paper for us because we had to spend that entire sum inside the States. (That wasn’t compulsory but the situation no different than that. We were staying in a hotel that would cost about two hundred dollars per night.) That money was for our hotel and daily food expenses based on a complex math of American government’s per dime allowance system. (I am always poor at math.) And that’s a good idea because that really helps the visitor to understand American society and its science of consumerism if they get to know how to pay money to whom.

Dinesh Wagle smiles in Santa Monica Beach...a self portrait via camera

Dinesh Wagle smiles in Santa Monica Beach…a self portrait by camera

Like many other friends in the group, I kept the money in a safety deposit box of the hotel later in the evening. But while I was in Los Angeles, I carried money (now reduced to somewhere around three thousand dollars after paying to Omni Hotel in LA) in my pocket all the time along with my passport. (That is why I was carrying my jacket all the time, folks!).

Did I mention an irony above? The other irony was that I was staying in hotels that would cost me more money than I would (at least in my case) earn in a month back in home. I wasn’t the only one facing such similar situation. After all, overwhelming majority of us (129 journalists from 105 countries) were from third world societies. When Josh of Afghanistan explained about this irony in the international conclave on the last day of our visit, people appreciated that with applaud.

We were trying to save as much money as possible from those 48 hundred dollars. (I wanted to buy a laptop computer- actually this laptop in which I am writing now). One easiest way to save the money was to share the hotel room. We tried to double up the rooms but we were disappointed most of the times. They wouldn’t allow us to share the bed citing different reasons like, the hotel would say that the State Department wouldn’t permit sharing or they can’t let us do that because a single room was booked for a person. I shared the room with Kiran Nepal for three nights. Boys were joking why just share the room between two, but do the same among 10 so that we can save more money! That was a crazy idea and we cracked all kind of jokes regarding that money and doubling up rooms. May be jokes were worth more than 5 thousand dollars! I think there were two folks one from Bangladesh and the other from Pakistan who didn’t want to share rooms.

So at the end of my trip, after buying this laptop, I still had a few hundred dollars (travel cheques) in my pocket. But that was possible because many of my friends (in the US) paid for my food and I stayed in a house of my friend in New Jersey. Plus, I didn’t have to spend money while I was in New York.

Cherry Blossom Festival In Washington D.C.

Cherry Blossom Festival. Wagle under Cherry tree

Wagle under Cherry tree: Ha ha.. in fact, I feel so uneasy to pose for camera. I want shots to be natural. But this was the moment when there was no alternate options, I guess. Pic by Kiran Nepal

“The first week of April is the best time to be in Washington D.C.,” American ambassador James F. Moriarty had told us in Kathmandu prior to our departure to his country. He was giving us his views of America in his office. “You will see blossoming cherries. That’s beautiful.” He was correct; D.C. with blossoming Cherries was beautiful indeed. These cherry trees were gifted by the Japanese government immediately after the World War II.

Cherry Blossom Festival. Wagle under Cherry tree
Cherry Blossom Festival. Wagle under Cherry tree

There was a festival- Cherry Blossom Festival- being organized. People were thronged into the area to see the attractive trees. Bands were playing live music and people were trying to have group photos. That was a tourist season in D.C. and we also benefited from that situation. The hotel where we were staying, Lincoln Suites, wanted more guests to accommodate in the hotel. So the hotel requested its guests to share the room if they wanted. We happily did that for a night and saved at least two hundred bucks.

Live music in cherry blossom festival
A band plays live music just in front of Jefferson Memorial. Pic by DW

Touring Washington D.C. With Chelsea Strange

The guide was more interesting then the destinations.

Reporters with Chelsea Strange

Clockwise from left (back row): Kaustubh Bhalchandra Kulkarni aka KK, (India), Shaiq Hussain (Pakistan), Mohammad Yousuf (Afghanistan), Namini Nimilamalee Wijedasa (Sri Lanka), Zainab Ibrahim (Sri Lanka), Kiran Nepal (Nepal), Rajesh Kumar Mahapatra (India), Wahidullah Amani (Afghanistan), Chelsea Strange and Kishalaya Bhattacharjee (India). Another gentleman behind Zainab is Sayed Sabir Saeed Shah (Pakistan). Pic by Dinesh Wagle

The schedule was that we, the South Asians, would be touring the city in afternoon (April 2). Some of us decided to utilize the morning and the first half of the afternoon going around the downtown on our own. We went up to places like Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial. Three Afghans, a Pakistani and two Nepalese in the city of Washington D.C. meant six folks totally new to the town, a totally different town than those of their respective home countries. At one point, I found myself running with the group while crossing the road ignoring the traffic light. “In our Afghanistan,” Josh Shahryar of Kabul Weekly who led the race on the street declared proudly. “We don’t have many traffic lights in the cities. We simply cross the streets as and when we want.” Shaiq Hussain, the Pakistani guy, instantly agreed. How could I disagree? Traffic in Kathmandu is a big mess and we have the ‘liberty’ of crossing the streets from any point at any time we prefer to.

Tourists taking photos in front of lincoln memorial
Tourists taking photo in front of Lincoln Memorial. Pic by DW

So we all agreed with Josh and used our Third World Freedom to cross the streets of Washington D.C. Thank God (all Hindu and Muslim and Christian Gods included), cars didn’t hit us. After all, we all were from the region called Third World with more or less similar background and improvised social situation. I have seen many villagers from remote places like Jumla walking for first time on the streets of Kathmandu. They are awed by the magnitude of Kathmandu compared to their village. They behave strangely and we can see innocence in that strangeness. We were the Jumlees in D.C.

tourists taking pic in war memorial
Tourists taking photo in War Memorial Pic by DW

Main attraction of the tour in the afternoon was, not the Monument or the Capitol Hill for sure, the GUIDE. A beautiful student of George Washington University, Chelsea Strange, was working as a part timer for a company that was hired by the organization that was organizing the tour on behalf of the State Department. As I said, that was her part time job. She has big dreams.

dinesh wagle in front of capitol hill
Wagle in front of Capitol Hill Pic by Kiran Nepal

The 20-year-old girl (I think I correctly remember her age) aspires to be an actress in future. She told me that she will start working for a TV series in the next few months. I was more interested in knowing about Chelsea than what she was supposed to tell us about the city. Characters and persons do matter to me while knowing about the place and a new society. Clad in white shirt and tight black trouser, Chelsea was getting attention of the folks in the group as if she was a star already. Well, she was a star! Guys wanted to have a group photo with the girl in the center! Well, not all guys, but many of us.

Wagle Jefferson Memorial
Wagle in Jefferson Memorial Pic by Kiran Nepal

Chelsea Strange wasn’t really a strange person for folks in the team. They soon knew that she had a boyfriend. When I told them that Chelsea had a boyfriend, some became a bit disappointed. I asked Chelsea about her personal life like where was she living and who was in family. Some interpreted that as flirting but, to be honest, my intention was to know more about the American girl who was working and studying and dreaming of being famous. After all, a reporter needed information about, about everyone including the guide. “Living in D.C. is a challenging thing,” she said. “You need to earn money. That is why I do spend some of my time doing things like this. I really enjoy doing this.”

dinesh wagle in lincoln memorial
Wagle (front) inside Lincoln Memorial. Three folks standing just below the Lincoln statue are (from left) Josh, Amani and Yousuf. Pic by Kiran Nepal

dinesh wagle in front of lincoln memorial

Wagle in front of Lincoln Memorial while trying to have a self photo with the camera set to self timer

Her skill of explaining things, especially the architecture and symbolic aspect of the city of D.C., was impressive. But was I least interested in such ‘guided tour’ with touristy explanations because I could find such information anywhere in the Internet. We were not looking for American history and info about the city. Someone brought out a brilliant idea. I think the person was Josh but I am not completely sure. We wanted to go the poor neighborhood of Washington D.C.!

South Asian Journalists in in Washington D.C
South Asian Journalists in War Memorial, Washington D.C Pic by DW

We the people from the Third World wanted to see the poverty of the First World. So the guided tour was shortened and Chelsea took us to a nearby residential area dominated by blacks. In fact, the driver, a black man, was in charge of this new and unexpected tour because taking tourists to poor neighborhood wasn’t really the job of Chelsea. (No, someone told us, its better that you don’t venture out of the bus because they might loot you.) After hearing this warning Rajesh Kumar Mahapatra, an Indian working for Associated Press in New Delhi, became emotional and started comparing the poverty between OUR world and THEIR world. I don’t have his exact quote here but he was saying something like this: our poor don’t go on looting and misbehaving others but here it’s different. That was a nice observation and I agreed with him.

dinesh wagle with washington monument on background

Wagle with Washington Monument on the background. Pic by Kiran Nepal

As we roamed around the neighborhood, we immediately realized that even poor in America are better off than their counterparts in our region. “I thought we were coming to the poor neighborhood,” someone in our group said. (Again it was Josh, I think.) “But I see good houses everywhere!”

Wagle in War Memorial
Wagle in War Memorial

By the end of the tour when folks realized that Chelsea won’t be coming with us the next day, disappointment ruled. But not for long time though! Again I was together with Chelsea as I was going to see the offices of the Washington Post and she was also going via the same route. She took me near the office building. Boys kept me teasing for this part for at least a week.

“Dinesh, jara bata to bhaiya,” I still remember Shaiq Hussein, the Pakistani, saying. “Tune kaisa pataya oos chhokri ko.” [Dinesh, will you tell me brother how did you impress that girl?] Just a quick note on Shaiq. He was a bit shy and reserved guy with whom I befriended very well. A light hearted many with great sense of humor; I had great time with him cracking jokes on almost everything.

Now the end note on Chelsea. To be honest with everyone in the group, there was no such thing like impressing or trying to impress the girl. I never thought about impressing and Chelsea, I knew, was more worried about her next day than being impressed by me.

Inside The Washington D.C. Strip Bar

But I was sooo shy!

I was a bit disappointed on the first day in Washington D.C. I had expected tall buildings, skyscrapers, in the city. No, they were not there and I soon realized the secret. The law of the city bars anyone making a building taller than the Washington monument which is 555ft/169m tall.

But the very first night in D.C. was beyond my expectation. It was a surprise night, I conclude. We had arrived in the city at around 7 PM (April 1) and by 10 PM I found myself in a strip bar where naked girls were happily dancing turn by turn in front of a crowd overwhelmingly dominated by men. A friend of mine in D.C., a Nepali who is in a similar profession like mine, was kind enough to take me (and another friend) in the bar. That was a surprise for me. We had told our friend to take us to any interesting place in D.C. and there we were. Right in front of the girls.

Wagle in Santa Monica Beach

OUTSIDE the bar: DW in Santa Monica Beach, Los Angeles Pic by Shaiq Hussain

Yes, the passport was needed but not for immigration or anything like that. They just wanted to make sure that I was 18 years or older. We met a group of boys and girls at the gate who were getting out of the place. We let them get out and entered. “Thanks,” a boy from the group said. “Enjoy the night.” Within the first minute of entering inside the club, I found myself in an uneasy position. Initially, I was shocked to see naked girls but I tried myself very hard not to reveal that expression. I wanted to act like a normal boy. Folks were enjoying but the place wasn’t really interesting and entertaining for me. Wait, I am not being idealistic here. I mean I can be a naughty boy but it didn’t take me much time to realize that the place wasn’t for me. My friends ordered beer for themselves where as I got a bottle of non-alcoholic drink. (I don’t smoke and drink alcohol for some strange reasons that are unknown to me.)

After about 10 minutes of watching people entertained by the girls stripping in front of them, I really felt like getting out of the place. The music was loud and I had to scream at my friends to make my voice heard. “Let’s go out,” I said to my friend who was seated on my side. Then he passed my message to our friend who actually took us there. “It’s not entertaining for me.” They wanted to finish the drink (I couldn’t even drink the liquid, that wasn’t tasty too). We kept watching the dance.

“But thank you very much for brining me here,” I continued after getting out of the place and walking on the cool street of downtown D.C. “At least I got a chance to see a strip bar. Even if I didn’t like it, it was necessary for me to see and have the experience of being inside it. And I appreciate those girls and the customers. But this is not a place to visit twice and I will not come here again.” And I never went back. I will not go back.

(Oh…by the way, let me quickly clarify that this Strip Bar visit wasn’t part of my official program IVLP which was organized by the US State Department in collaboration with different Universities. It was personal visit, I should say, about which the Department folks weren’t aware of, I think. So what? The program was also about the cultural exchange!)

As we were approaching the hotel, I again thanked my friend for taking me there. My point was that the girls were too naked. There was action, as a copycat song created by MTV India is saying while I am typing these lines (June 1st), but emotion was lacking! (Action toh hey… per emotion nahin) There was no eroticism, there was no feeling whatsoever. It is not that I don’t like girls. I like but what’s the attraction when you see the whole thing at once and there is nothing hidden inside. Girls were naked, plain and simple, and they dancing like a machine or an automated robot programmed for certain sequences. The only piece of cloth, if I can use such term in this sentence, that they were wearing was a small elastic rope tied on their lower thigh. Why? This is interesting.

The ‘connoisseurs’ of strip dance would go near the girl on the stage and, after watching her for about a minute (or two) from very near (about 20 cm, I guess), they would insert a dollar bill in that elastic rope. Good thing about the dace and the show was that the ‘connoisseurs’ didn’t touch the girls and the girls were damn happy to serve their customers. So the whole show, it appeared, was professionally managed and well executed! After finishing the show (one dance sequence lasted for about 7 minutes, I think), the girl would start serving food (mainly drinks) and collect tips from the people on the tables. One big girl came to our table asking if we wanted additional drinks. I don’t know how much my friend tipped the girl but I was even afraid to see at her face directly.

Well, you can say that was a real taste of cultural shock that I was experienced within hours of landing in Washington D.C.

When I told about my strip bar visit to some people, including two American girls, they were kind of shocked. No, boys weren’t shocked. They wanted me to take them there. “What?” a girl responded. “Are you saying that you went to the strip bar?” Yes, she couldn’t believe. And continue asking: “Who took you there?” Hum, a million dollar question, I told myself.