Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Ribs, Rockets and Religion for Washington’s Fourth of July
By Carol Joynt

Here’s the thing about Washington in the summer (apart from the tropical climate.) We are two cities. There is the city of those who live here, whatever the neighborhood, the profession or politics, and those who visit. Those who live here expect the tourist invasion. They take on a certain studied calm about the tourist buses that clog rush hour, the out of state plates that don’t know whether to turn left or right on Rock Creek Parkway, and those weary faces of Mom and Dad shuttling family from one monument to the next.

For people who work in the White House or on Capitol Hill, or near the National Mall, the tourist influx is every workday. For those who live outside the “zone,” there may be chance encounters at restaurants or shops. The bottom line is, they bring an enormous pile of dollars to the city and its businesses, and that is especially welcomed in this summer of a shrinking dollar and expanding energy costs.

One of the biggest tourists events of every summer is the annual Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival, a celebration of cultural heritage both domestic and international. It takes place on the Mall and runs through a few days past the Fourth. Since it began in 1967, it seems to be the year’s hottest days when the tents go up. Regardless, the exhibitions of music, crafts, food, and artistry draw more than a million visitors. Many are also here for one of the nation’s biggest Independence Day fireworks extravaganza’s that fills the sky over the Washington Monument.

We visited this year’s festival to get a taste of the ribs, rockets and religion that are included in this year’s honored themes of Texas, NASA and Bhutan. The Texas ribs were from Capital Q Barbecue of Washington, DC. The rockets were of the inflatable variety. The religion was low key. The longest line was at the Bhutanese lhakhang, or temple, built in part in Bhutan and assembled here over the past month. According to the Smithsonian, this is a rare public exhibition for the small and isolated Himalayan kingdom whose ruler enforces a policy of “Gross National Happiness.”
Walking past the Smithsonian "castle" with statue of John Henry (above right) and on to the main attraction: the authentic lhakhang, or temple, built by Bhutanese craftsmen.
The lhakhang included intricate carvings and painting that were done in Bhutan. In a haze of smoke from incense, Monks performed many native rituals, including the tying of brightly colored silk string on the wrists of visitors.
Entertainment is a big part of the festival, and there are performances going on continuously on many stages. With the musical acts it is easy to tell what's Texas versus what's Bhutan, and Nasa did not have a musical act, only speakers.
NASA's exhibit was, naturally, very scientific. While the rocket and space capsule were inflatable, the rocket engines and the space station docking ring were real, with code numbers and letters in English and Russian. In addition to ribs, there was Vietnamese food from Texas, and "momos" and "ema datsi" from Bhutan, but with temps in the 90s a very popular food was the fresh and cold watermelon.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.