I arrived at the Ambassador's residence around 9am for orientation. Stepping inside this oasis of lush style, you'd never know you're just a few steps from the Dupont Circle Metro Station. From the stunning entryway leading to a jaw-dropping wooden staircase, to the dining room with Elizabethan wainscoting, to the skylight in the Edwardian ballroom, the Thomas Gaff house is a true DC landmark. It's a few blocks from the actual Embassy of Colombia. But it was no surprise that this was the chosen site to host the Embassy's open house. The place is sa-weeeeeet!
This was Cultural Tourism DC's second year organizing Passport DC, a series of 30+ embassy open houses all occurring on the same Saturday in May. The event provided a unique opportunity to visit some of the most gorgeous properties DC has to offer. Embassies from Australia to Zambia opened their doors to the public, offering cultural programs, food tasting, and a rare glimpse inside buildings that are not often open for walk-ins by the Average Joe. I'd heard about the event from the volunteer coordinators at the Cherry Blossom Festival, and it sounded like a great opportunity to give back. I received two assignments: morning shift at the Embassy of Colombia, and afternoon shift outside the Embassy of Ukraine.
Last year's event drew over 50,000 people, and this year they expected even greater numbers. In preparation for a day of directing the masses, Denisse Yanovich, Cultural Attaché at the embassy, gathered up a group of Passport volunteers and embassy staff to dole out assignments. As any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than knowing exactly what you're supposed to be doing, so it was a great relief to see the shifts planned out in precise detail. Denisse explained that some of us would be tasked with crowd control, making sure that nobody brushed up against the priceless Botero painting in the foyer or wandered upstairs to Ambassador Carolina Barco Isakson's private residence, and some of us would be serving treats or handing out literature in the main ballrom. I ended up at the passport stamp station. The event program guide featured a "passport" section in the middle, where visitors could collect a stamp for each embassy visited. My very important job was to offer an official stamp to those who wanted to commemorate their visit to Colombian soil. Most embassies used standard ink stamps, or stickers, but at the Embassy of Colombia we didn't mess around. I got to use an ancient metal seal to emboss page after page. After a few hours the muscles on my right side started to feel like jelly, but it was worth it for the excited reactions. "Oooooo! It's so *official*!" and "Coooooooool!" and "Wow, that's awesome!" were just a few of the standard responses. People really dug it. And as any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than recognition of a job well done.
Last year, the Embassy saw about 2,000 visitors. I don't know what the final count was for this year, but I'm guessing we surpassed last year's benchmark by about midday. The line stretched out the door and around the block. People were almost as excited to see the exquisite artwork as they were to enter the raffle to win a free tshirt emblazoned with the "Colombia es pasión!" tagline. Visitors were also treated to videos extolling Colombia's tourist attractions, free Juan Valdez coffee, and bocadillos with guava and queso. I didn't see the Couchsurfing group who met up for the day, but did run into a random friend who was surprised to see me wielding an official Colombian seal. It was a great morning.
My shift was over around 1pm, when I was relieved by the afternoon volunteer. Denisse directed me to the kitchen in the bowels of the residence for a spot of lunch. (As any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than a free lunch! Especially one awarded in recognition of a job well done.) I was a bit sad to leave, but my next shift awaited. I ate as quickly as I could, and caught the Route 3 shuttle bus to my next destination in Georgetown.
On the shuttle, I sat next to a woman who had just come from the Embassy of Uzbekistan, and was en route to Saudi Arabia. She and I marveled at the fact that when you've lived somewhere for a while, you tend to take for granted the goodies that are available in your backyard. When else do you get a chance to see what the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia has to offer? Legally, Embassy grounds *are* officially the soil of that particular country, so it's probably the only chance someone like me might get to "visit" Saudi Arabia. Alas, today it wasn't meant to be, as I needed to continue on to my next shift at the Embassy of Ukraine.
Long story short, I got redirected to help out at the main information booth back at Dupont Circle. I spent the rest of the afternoon directing folks to the appropriate shuttle lines, explaining that although the Embassy of Australia closed at 3pm there were still plenty of embassies open until 4, and handing out program guides until they ran out. While not nearly as organized as my time in Colombia that morning, it was nonetheless energizing. By the time my afternoon shift ended around 4:30, I was exhausted and more than ready to head for home.
It's too bad Passport DC is only once a year... so many fabulous embassies, so little time! But for those who are looking for a second chance, the European Union countries are doing their own open house events next weekend:
Shortcut to Europe
Saturday, May 9