Belizean Ambassador Nestor Mendez, his wife Elvira and son Anwar stood in front of the embassy greeting awed guests who came to experience a sample of Belizean hospitality.
The visitors who trooped onto the embassy grounds on Saturday, May 5 were among the thousands who participated in the fifth Passport DC. The event is a month-long celebration that whisks local residents and visitors on a global journey without ever leaving the city. This year, 43 embassies participated.
Guests could buy a commemorative passport for $5 and have staffers at the embassies they visited stamp their books.
While the expectation was to be immersed in food, music, dance, and countries' cultures, heritage and history, few expected to shake hands with an actual ambassador.
"Hello. Welcome to the Embassy of Belize. I'm Nestor Mendez. Thank you for joining us," he said.
"Did you say you were the ambassador?" one man asked. "Can I take a picture with you?"
"It would be an honor," Mendez said with a broad smile before posing for one of many snapshots.
"It's great," Mendez said afterward. "I think people enjoy the personal touch."
Mendez, who has been Belize's ambassador to the U.S. for four years, said Passport DC is an excellent vehicle to familiarize people with his country and all it has to offer.
"It's the first time that we've participated. It's important for Belize. We have so much to offer in tourism," he said. "We're a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country with a rich heritage. This is fantastic. People see what Belize is all about. We are for people who want something off the beaten path. What we offer is tourism par excellence. When you come to Belize, this is the treatment you receive."
At that moment, an elderly woman walked up and substantiated Mendez's comment.
"It's so nice of you to greet us personally," she said. "We've been to Belize and loved it very much."
Visitors didn't have to enter the embassies to hear music of all types that included Reggae, Calypso and blends of Belizean, Korean and Chadian rhythms.
Up the road at the Embassy of the Republique de Côte d'Ivoire, an extraordinarily long line snaked in serpentine fashion down Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest.
It was worth the wait. Once inside, guests were treated to Ivorian hospitality at its finest. Embassy staff served from a menu that included fried fish, chicken, aloco [fried plantains], attieke [couscous], a ginger drink, sorrel and passion fruit.
"I don't know what other embassies are doing but this is amazing," said Brenda Melvin, a 51-year-old native Washingtonian who volunteered at the embassy. "So far, 586 people have gone through. This line is absolutely crazy. Are they giving away money? The embassy staff is really wonderful though."
Just behind Melvin, six drummers in a semi-circle in the driveway drummed with measured intensity. Male and female dancer adorned in colorful dresses and robes danced along to the rhythmic serenade offered to guests patiently waiting in line. Sometimes the visitors gathered around musicians and dancers taking pictures or shooting video. And from time-to-time, staffers came out with trays and served cool drinks.
A life-sized cutout of futbol superstar Didier Drogba graced one section of the foyer, and tables held pagne royal "akan" grass skirts, other types of clothing, sandals, wood carvings, masks, dolls, musical instruments, gold necklaces, pendants and other jewelry, cocoa pods, chocolate and coffee beans.
The Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer and exporter of cocoa.
Meiway, popular music from Côte d'Ivoire blared from loudspeakers.
Directly across the street, Chadian drummers sat in the grass and allowed sometimes reluctant visitors to play along. In the embassy, guests filed past paintings, pictures and art of the desert nation and conversed with embassy officials.
Carla Chisselle and Joseph Hannah stood in the Ivory Coast courtyard noshing on plates of food. The pair said they had been to Passport DC four times before, and Chisselle came armed with a wish list of embassies to visit. This included Indonesia, Turkey, Bolivia, Mozambique, Peru and Saudi Arabia.
"We kind of like this building. We've been looking at it for a number of years as we drove by to work and I was curious to see what's going on," Hannah said. "We've been here [to the event] before and have been underwhelmed but overall, it is a good experience and a chance to look at cultures you may not see normally, and see what countries have to offer up close."
Hannah said he was struck by the contrast between what he's read or heard in the news about certain countries and then experiencing the diplomatic offering.
The pair said they had a mix of embassies they'd visited, saying that Iraq caught their eye and imagination with artifacts from the 16th century and a range of other displays and items that illustrated that country's rich, diverse and ancient culture.
Chisselle, who works in international finance, said when she goes overseas on work-related travel, she rarely gets to see the non-business side of those countries because she's not about to just jump in a cab and explore the city. So Passport DC is a cool, relaxing way to learn more about the world, she said.
Chisselle said she lived in the Ivory Coast for three years before the coup and a crippling civil war.
"I liked the culture, liked that it had a middle class and that there was not a vast disparity between rich and poor," she explained.
All along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, the sidewalks were overloaded with people making pilgrimages from one embassy to another. Some stopped to peruse maps and plot strategy to visit as many embassies as possible, others toted bags with knick-knacks and many joined lines at the embassies of their choice. Shuttle buses transported visitors up Massachusetts Avenue and to embassies in far-flung parts of the city.
Passport DC spokeswoman Jessica Marlatt said 22,000 people attended last year's event and she expected a similar number or more this year.
By the time Angela Cardoso and her friend Malika Jackson walked through the Bahamian Embassy, the rum and other culinary goodies were long gone. But they were unfazed because they had decided to see this embassy in passing.
"It's my first year doing this. It's interesting. I want to learn a little about different countries so I think this is a good thing to do," said Jackson, a native of Trinidad and Tobago.
"This is good if you're trying to decide on vacation opportunities to look for," Cardoso said. "I want to go to Greece and Spain."
Jackson said she was taken aback that among Australia's exhibits was one on its role in Afghanistan. War, she explained, seemed out of place in the context of what Passport DC is supposed to be about.
Chad's Deputy Chief of Mission Youssouf Hamid Takane said that Passport DC is all about love and respect and not about conflict.
"It's beautiful," he said of Passport DC. "Washington isn't just the political capital. It is also a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic center. This is a nation built on immigration, different cultures. It is a country built on law and dignity."
"Passport DC will offer programs and events throughout the entire month of May. For further information, visit www.culturaltourismdc.org or call 202-661-7581.