I travel to Washington often as part of my job. In 2010, I was assigned for a few months to my organization’s headquarters inside the Beltway, which afforded me the opportunity for daily jogs along the Mall. Since then, it has remained my favorite place to run for many reasons.
First, where else can you find such a beautiful setting? The old hardwood trees that line the Mall are majestic, their beauty peaking in the fall when they erupt in shades of red, yellow and orange. And for those of us who appreciate flat running terrain, the topography has its own beauty. The distance between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is crisscrossed by many busy streets with traffic lights that let me appreciate the grand views while I try to catch my breath.
And the history! As I run, I imagine Pierre L’Enfant surveying the city, horses and buggies throwing up clouds of dust, Civil War troops parading in long columns before cheering crowds and Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice emanating from the Lincoln Memorial. I also recall a beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 when everything abruptly turned dark in our lives.
With so many memorials, monuments and museums, Washington draws millions of tourists from around the world. And that brings me to my self-appointed ambassadorship. Why not? It’s a free country, as they say, so what better city than Washington in which to assume a position of responsibility without any actual permission, accountability or genuine credibility?
I first heard the call to serve in 2010 during a run, when I came across a family of non-English-speaking tourists near the Capitol. The father was trying to position his family for a photo, from which he would be conspicuously absent, so I stopped and used my exceptional non-verbal communication skills to offer assistance. I pointed, nodded and smiled, and he bowed appreciatively. Seconds later, the family had their photo, and I had a little more bounce in my step. The day seemed much improved.
That would be the first of many ambassadorial moments for me. I’ve subsequently photographed many families (always my favorite) and an occasional hand-holding couple. But by far my most memorable goodwill coup was the time I photographed a group of about 30 Japanese tourists near the Lincoln Memorial.
Now I find myself looking forward to chances to welcome tourists — not just to Washington but really to America. I often wonder what foreign tourists think of us. I hope it isn’t based only on television, their trip through customs or the hospitality they get from the various modes of transportation in the city. I wonder if they’ll remember “that American who took the photo,” and if they are surprised that an American would stop to offer to help. I wonder what they’re saying as I’m leaving. I hope it isn’t about me getting sweat on their camera.
In 2000, while a student at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., I volunteered to sponsor an Egyptian naval officer who was away from his country for the first time. My job was to introduce him to my family, show him around town, help him understand our culture and assist him with any logistical problems. I made it my mission to make him feel warmly welcomed.
The college’s international students traveled periodically to U.S. destinations of historic, recreational, industrial and governmental significance, which naturally included our nation’s capital. Unfortunately, while in the District, the Egyptian officer and another student were robbed. That was no Ambassador of Hospitality that greeted my foreign friend. He seemed to recover well, but I was mortified. Apologizing profusely, I attempted to convince him that his misfortune was truly an anomaly.
With increasing reports of anti-American sentiment overseas, I feel helpless, as just one person, to affect the world stage. But there is strength in numbers. Representing America is a great privilege usually reserved for statesmen, and perhaps Olympians. But many openings for Ambassadors of Hospitality are available — in the District and across America.
The pay is terrible, but the rewards are great.