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.

International Visitors Leadership Program. What I Did in the United States

And an overview of what I did in the trip

The program is called ‘International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP)’ that, according to a description provided by the State Department which hosts it, “seeks to build mutual understanding between the United States and other nations through carefully designed professional visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders.” There are many specialized programs under the IVLP banner. Let me complete the introduction of IVLP. “These visits reflect the visitors’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the U.S. government,” states the same description paper.

“Each year over 4,500 IVLP participants from all over the world are selected by U.S. embassies to travel to the U.S. to meet and confer with their professional [American] counterparts. Over 225 current and former heads of government and state and many other distinguished world leaders in the public an private sectors have participated in the International Visitors Leadership Program [that was] launched in 1940.” So, does this means I have the chance to become the head of government (or even the State by then, who knows) in future? Just kidding..

I mentioned earlier that there are specialized programs under IVLP banner. I was invited to take part in an IVLP project entitled “Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists” which was administered by Delphi International Program of World Learning, a private sector company that works with the U.S. Department of State, from April 3-21, 2006. “This is what is called public-private sector partnership,” said someone associated with the State Department on the relationship with Delphi. “We create the plan and objectives of the program and they organize it on our behalf.”

Indeed, that was a wonderful example of the public private partnership: state funding some parts of the program and where as the private sector contributing the state’s goal by organizing programs. Universities organized seminars and discussions (in our case, the University of Southern California) and newspapers welcomed visiting reporters in their offices. (In my case LA Daily News in Los Angeles). Those meetings and seminars were interactive and revealing. Especially our visit to the newspapers office and press of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (in Milwaukee) were very informative.

What were the objectives of the program? The Department of State, states the same program paper, has outlined the following specific objectives of the project:

1. Examine the rights and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy;

2. Observe operational practices, standards and institutions of the media in the U.S.;

3. Gain insight into the social, economic and political structures of the U.S.; and

4. Participate in academic seminars and a professional development symposium highlighting current trends and challenges in the media profession.

There were 129 journalists from 105 countries. They were divided into several groups like South Asian, South East Asian, English Speaking African, Arabic Speaking African (I am not sure about the last one but there were others like Arabic Speaking Europeans etc.) I think there were about 8 such groups (who cares about the number of groups by the way) and they were assigned to different cities separately or combined. For instance, the South Asian, South East Asian and English Speaking Africans went to Los Angeles and participated in seminars and discussions organized by the Annenberg School of Communication in University of Southern California. At times they were divided into smaller groups.

We also visited offices of different media organizations (job shadowing which I did for Los Angeles Daily News in San Fernando Valley). After spending a week in LA, the South Asians went to Wisconsin (Milwaukee and Madison) where as others went to other different cities.

We visited mosque and church in the city of Milwaukee where Harley Davidson is headquartered. We visited the Municipal office and interacted with officials. We visited the state capitol in Madison and talked to two senate members from Democratic and Republican parties. We also visited private house where a wonderful group of musicians organized a live show for us.

All groups came together in Washington D.C. in 21st April to take part in an international symposium organized by the Aspen Institute. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice also addressed the meeting and responded queries filed by journalists on behalf of each group. Indian journalist on behalf of South Asia asked a question about the then political situation in Nepal.

On a critical note, I think, they could have let us stay in less expensive hotels (or university facilities) so that we could have made our stay more interactive. To be honest, informal meetings that I did on my personal capacity were more fruitful and interesting than some of the formal programs and schedules. It would be even better if the organizers let the visitors spend more time on their own.

My American Journey: How Was The Trip

“Oh..ho, Kaile ho? Kasto bhayo ta yatra? (Oh..ho, When [did you return]? So how was the trip?] Many of my friends who knew that I visited the United States in April wanted to know the answers of the questions. The problem with me was that there was no particular answer with me that could effectively satisfy their questions, especially the second one. Therefore my answers varied from person to person but that didn’t expand from more than a sentence.

Answer to the first question was relatively easy: yesterday, two days ago, last week, 10 days ago etc. And the most common answer to the second question was a single word: colorful. The other was: black and white. Another: that was great. Yet another: quite okay. I wasn’t too excited to tell them about the journey as, I have seen, many people do after returning from the United States or any other country for that matter. It wasn’t fashionable for me, I guess. Blogging, however, is still fashionable and I am doing this right here. The advantage of blog is that I don’t have to repeat the same description to each person.

Dinesh Wagle in Detroit International Airport

Dinesh Wagle in Detroit International Airport en route to Washington D.C on April 1, 2006. Pic by Kiran Nepal

Back to the original topic. There was a person, an exception, one of my colleagues in Kantipur Publications, who didn’t ask about my journey but thanked me for coming back to Nepal! “It’s great to see you in Kathmandu again,” he said, firmly shaking my hand and looking at my eyes. “Desh ko ijjat bachaidinu bhayo. [You saved the country’s reputation.]” My God, I thought, did I really save my country’s reputation? Is my country’s reputation so vulnerable that just returning from an invited trip will save it? Actually yes considering the fact that many people even reputed in Nepali society tend to overstay illegally in the US after entering legally.

When I told my friends that I will be returning Nepal not staying more than two extra days after the official program is finished, many of them were raising eyebrows and asking why I was doing so. I could have stayed there a month legally and my friends and contacts were ready to give me food and shelter for the next six months. Many of my friends thought that I was marrying in the first week of May (so that I wanted to return at the end of April). That wasn’t correct though. I was supposed to go for yet another international trip which unfortunately didn’t materialize. (As the pro-democracy movement got intensified in the mid of April, I thought of cancelling the trip and coming back. But there were some technical and personal problems as well that discouraged me from doing so. But I really missed those historical developments.)

To be honest, I was pretty much excited about the American Journey. After hearing so many things about America, it was an opportunity to experience the American society. Moreover, it was a completely sponsored, high-profile and guided trip taking me to different cities of the United States from East Coast to West Coast. Even by an American standard, it was an attractive itinerary. Not all Americans get to travel from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles to Milwaukee to Madison to D.C. to New York in three weeks time staying in hotels that cost up to 220 bucks per night (yes, your guess is correct, just to sleep alone in a room with two good beds!).