Area Residents Enjoy Passport DC

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/16/2012, 10:59 a.m.

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 Cte 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.