The man from Oman says his camel can run five kilometers in 8 minutes. The Texan chuckles and looks at Richard, a sedate 9-year-old Arabic camel standing in the middle of the Mall.
"My camel can do that in about two days," the Texan says, lifting his cowboy hat to point at Richard.
"No!" cries the Omani, incredulous.
"Well, mine does it after training."
The subsequent laugh shared by Doug Baum and Hamood Abdullah Al Waheibi rings with the spirit of the 39th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the choreographed collision of culture that began Thursday, goes through Monday, and resumes Thursday through July 4. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people moseyed between a fleet of steepled white tents, drifting in when a particular program or demonstration looked or smelled good. That's more Folklife folks than most years, according to organizers (but not as many as 2002, when the Silk Road theme attracted a record-breaking crowd).
This year, Folklife features four themes: "Food Culture USA," "Forest Service, Culture and Community," "Nuestra Musica: Music in Latino Culture" and "Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea." (Past themes included Scotland, Mali, the Czech Republic, the Mississippi Delta, White House workers and trial lawyers. Yes, trial lawyers.) Oman, a Kansas-size nation on the Arabian Sea, is the first Arab country ever represented at Folklife. Earlier this week, about 110 Omanis arrived in Washington to showcase the country's music, dance, textiles, perfumes, metalwork and pottery, all under Folklife's mission of presenting the aesthetics of people around the world.
It was no trouble for the Omanis to go from one side of the world to the other, but communicating the kind of "crazy specific information" organizers needed across cultural and linguistic borders was the challenge, says Diana Parker, who's celebrating her 20th year as festival director. "Everything from who smokes and doesn't, so that we could put them in the right rooms at the hotel, to how many inches do you want the fence to be, to do they demonstrate sitting in chairs or do they sit on mats."
Two years of logistics was what eventually paired Baum and Al Waheibi, the odd couple of camel culture. Baum, a tall redhead with a drawl, operates his own camel trek and education company in Valley Mills, Tex. Al Waheibi, dressed in a white robe and red headdress called a msser, owns 37 camels and 150 goats in the Wahiba Sands, south of the Omani capital, Muscat. For the festival's duration, it's their job to demonstrate the industriousness of the camel and how it's used in Bedouin life.
"They're just like people -- some spit, some don't," says Baum, fielding a question from a passerby. He leans in, ready to dispel another myth. "And to be completely technical, they don't spit. They vomit."
The pleasantries of camel chat are but one stop on the main thoroughfare of Folklife, where a dozen scents taint the air. Chicken from the Latino cafe. Frankincense from the Omani aromatics tent. Onions from the "Food Culture USA" section, where Benjamin Goff is sauteing vegetables with fennel in a copper woodburning stove.
"If you know where your food comes from, you're going to know a little more about what you put in your body," says Goff, a garden educator in the Berkeley, Calif., school system. Behind him is a re-creation of an Edible Schoolyard, a project started in Berkeley in which students learn to plant, tend, harvest and cook from a community garden.
The food is what attracts Arlington residents Joyce and Scott Hedges to Folklife every year.
"I love it because it's a microcosm of the international community," says Scott, as he weaves his way through rows of radishes and heads of romaine lettuce in the Edible Schoolyard.
"It's just beautiful, too, if you find vegetables beautiful, which I do," adds Joyce, a gardener.
There's also a musical aspect to Folklife, and it's represented in the unlikely arena of the Forest Service. On the north side of the Mall, under a dense canopy of trees, a 71-year-old "logger poet" plays his guitar for an audience assembled on benches made of halved trunks.
"I'm a choker-setter, rig-and-slinger, hooktender, high-climber, tramp loggin' man," Hank Nelson sings, blending bluegrass style with lumberjack jargon.
Nelson -- who lives in the Mat-Su Valley, 40 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska -- spent 35 years as a logger, eventually putting the hardships and glories of the trade into music. And here he is in frayed jeans and flannel, one distinct blade in a field of grass-roots culture.
"We're keeping alive in song and in poem and in story form a part of the culture that helped us build this country, from the time Lewis and Clark went westward until now," Nelson says after his set, as Omani drums thump in the distance. "We're trying to preserve the culture of where we came from and where we hope to go."