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Today billions of people around the world will celebrate Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, known to Christians as the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As I’ve discussed in prior years, the holiday has been marked for two millennia in many different ways in many different places but with common elements of family gatherings, prayer, song, festive meals, charitable acts, and exchange of gifts.

Handing out the toys at Wellington hospital.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is helping my Marines distribute toys to hospitalized children as part of the U.S. Marines’ Toys for Tots program.

The National Christmas Tree, behind the White House. Click through for image source.

The First Family lights this year’s National Christmas Tree, behind the White House.

Although we sometimes get caught up in the shopping, gift-giving, decorations, parties, and day off from work, there is deeper meaning beneath the popularized Christmas traditions. The season is about hope, peace, and salvation, manifested in the most unlikely way … in the birth of a baby to parents of very humble means, in a manger in a stable because there was no room at the inn as they journeyed home. The Gospel according to St. Luke recounts:

 Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds.

Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds, painted in 1609 & housed in the Museo Regionale, Messina.

“It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. All went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

“Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

“So it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. This shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Click for image source.Capitol Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree at the Capitol building in Washington.

To all of our friends celebrating today, Dr. McWaine and I wish you a very Merry Christmas. And to those around the world who must celebrate quietly behind closed doors because of fear of government reprisals, we wish you strength, courage, and glad tidings in this season of hope.

We are trying another experiment at the Embassy, this time involving the State Department’s premier professional exchange, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). As I described in a prior post, the IVLP is designed to build mutual understanding through carefully designed study tours of the United States for emerging leaders in a variety of fields including education, the arts, business, politics, philanthropy, community organizing, and media.

Kiwi conservation advocate Nicola Toki and her IVLP study group surveying Limahula Gardens on Kauai in 2012.

Kiwi conservation advocate Nicola Toki and her IVLP study group surveying Limahula Gardens on Kauai in 2012.

Each year the Department develops several dozen IVLP programs on different topics. Our Embassies around the world are then invited to nominate citizens of their host countries for particular IVLPs. Each program is typically 2 or 3 weeks long and accepts 10 to 25 participants from different countries. In each case we try to create a highly diverse, promising group of attendees who will learn from each other and form lasting networks.

In total, the IVLP brings more than 4,000 International Visitors to the United States each year. Since its inception in 1940, the program has hosted more than 200,000 people, including 300 current and former Chiefs of State and Heads of Government, thousands of cabinet-level ministers, thousands of influential educators and commentators, and many other distinguished leaders from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors.

This year, instead of nominating several Kiwis for the programs developed in DC, we decided to develop our own “single country” IVLP on a topic of great importance to the Embassy – economic development, trade, investment, capacity building, and networking in and among communities of first peoples. Specifically, we will be sending a group of five emerging Maori business leaders to the United States for three weeks to visit leading American Indian and Alaskan Native corporations and universities, meet with American Indian and Alaskan Native business leaders, and experience the diversity of American first peoples culture, tribal organization, and entrepreneurship.

The itinerary will include visits to the Winnebago and Omaha Reservations in Nebraska to study economic development, American Indian universities in Arizona, Native American business operations in telecommunications, environmental remediations, fishing and sustainable mining in Alaska, and large scale forestry investment Seattle. There will be ample opportunity to engage with tribal, federal, State, and local governments on political, economic, and social issues of importance to American first peoples, including a visit to the Embassy of Tribal Nations (in Washington, DC), meetings with members of Congress, and the White House Council on Native American Affairs.

Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Maxwell Mackenzie.

The Washington, DC leg of the trip will include a tour of the extensive collections at the National Museum of the American Indian.

The study tour is intended in part to provide insight into the large scale and great diversity of the first-peoples landscape in the United States. We have 566 distinct, federally-recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native nations, with 139 distinct spoken tribal languages. Approximately 4.1 million Americans identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, and tribes hold more than 50 million acres (202,000 square kilometers) of land, representing 2% of the land mass and more than 10% of the energy reserves of the United States. There are 37 tribal colleges and universities.

Our five IVLP travelers from New Zealand will be Lisa Tumahai of Ngāi Tahu, Toa Greening of Te Huarahi Tika Trust, Gina Rangi of Tuaropaki Trust, Paki Rawiri of Tainui, and Ngarimu Blair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. The group represents diverse iwi and Māori trusts active in a range of traditional and innovative market sectors including geothermal energy, telecommunications, tourism, property, fisheries, agriculture, education, and more. Even bare-bones bios reveal just how accomplished these individuals are.

Lisa Tumahai.

Lisa Tumahai.

Lisa Tumahai is Deputy Chair of Ngāi Tahu and was instrumental in the development of the successful commercial operations and social programs for one of Ngāi Tahu’s sub tribes, Ngāti Waewae. She is very active in Māori advocacy groups with governance roles in Māori Charitable Trusts and Te Waipounamu Māori Heritage Centre.

She has been active in Māori Advisory Groups at Canterbury University and with the Ministry of Social Development, and has worked as Māori and Pacific Health portfolio manager and personal health team contracts manager with the Canterbury District Health Board.

Toa Greening.

Toa Greening.

Toa Greening is a Trustee of the Te Huarahi Tika Trust. A strong advocate for the communities of South Auckland, he has been an elected member of the Manurewa Local Board on Auckland Council. He has more than twenty years experience in the New Zealand ICT industry.

A long-time community volunteer for various causes, Toa is most passionate about environmental issues. He is currently the technical spokesperson on radio frequency electro-magnetic fields for the Safer Wireless Technology NZ and a professional member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society.

Gina Rangi.

Gina Rangi.

Gina Rangi has ten years experience as a Trustee for Tuaropaki Trust. Before establishing her own consultancy firm, she worked as a solicitor in the law firm Russell McVeagh on its Māori legal team on Treaty of Waitangi disputes and fisheries allocation.

As a member of the government’s Māori Economic Development Panel, she produced Economic Strategy and Action Plan, identifying measures to improve productivity and performance in the Māori economy. In 2000, she was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the New Zealand High Court.

Paki Rawiri.

Paki Rawiri.

Paki Rawiri started his career in Māori development shortly after completing a Master degree in applied science at the Australian Maritime College in 1998. Now operating his own consultancy company, he works with a wide variety of public and private organizations on projects focused on Māori and iwidevelopment.

Paki has worked with most iwi in the country through Te Ohu Kai Moana (the Māori Fisheries Commission). In this role he successfully managed the transfer of commercial fisheries assets to 49 of the 57 iwi organizations recognised in the Māori Fisheries Act of 2004.

Ngarimu Blair.

Ngarimu Blair.

Ngarimu Blair is a Deputy Chair or Director of the Ngāti Whatua Orakei Trust, Waterfront Auckland, Ngāti Whatua Orakei Whai Rawa Ltd, and his own consulting company, Nga Tira Ltd. He is a Treaty settlement negotiator for Ngāti Whatua as well as its spokesperson and has lectured on Māori history, planning, and media issues at Auckland University and Auckland University of Technology.

A geographer with 15 years experience in advancing a range of iwi issues in Auckland City, Ngarimu established the largest ecological restoration project on the Auckland Isthmus and has spearheaded a number of city art and urban design projects that have highlighted the Māori history of the City.

As you can see, it’s a very impressive group. My team and I are working hard to put together the most productive and interesting itinerary possible for them, and we already have an impressive partial agenda in place. I’ll circle back with more information for you once we get the full itinerary locked down.

Finally, I have to admit that we are thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to bring a new perspective to one of the State Department’s flagship exchange programs. We deeply appreciate the trust and generosity of our colleagues back in DC who are supporting our foray down this exciting and potentially impactful path.

DH Sig

Washington is one of my favorite cities, a perfect blend of majestic but personal, deeply historical but cutting-edge contemporary, kinetic but contemplative, sometimes gridlocked but relentlessly in motion, meaningful and substantive but often exuberantly joyful. My new colleague Elizabeth Evans, who will be arriving in Auckland shortly, shares below her insider’s perspectives on our iconic Capital in this latest installment in my series of guides to great places to visit in the United States.

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by Elizabeth Evans

The abundance of festivals, free museums and tours make Washington, DC an extremely family friendly city easily explored on the city’s metro transit train and bus system or by a network of rental bikes and cars. Adults can revel in the city’s vibrant sports, bar, and restaurant scene.

This is a city where things happen. It is a city of past ghosts and current ambition. People visit DC to learn national history, but they live and work here because they want to be a part of the force that writes it. The National Mall, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Vietnam, and Martin Luther King Jr Memorials remind visitors and residents alike that DC isn’t just a city, it is also a symbol of our national character and values.

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and United States Capital Building greet visitors and commuters entering the city across the Potomac River. Click through for image source.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol Building greet visitors and commuters entering the city across the Potomac River.

The White House is the seat of the executive branch of government and President’s residence. Click through for image source.

The White House is the seat of the executive branch of government as well as the President’s residence.

President Barack Obama speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C. (AP Image)

Per tradition, the members of the three branches of our Government assembled in public outside the U.S. Capitol for the swearing-in of Barack Obama as President.

Built along the banks of the Potomac River and Anacostia rivers in a purposeful crossroads between northern and southern interests, Washington’s physical size is approximately half the size of Wellington at 68 square miles, carved out of land donated by the state of Maryland. It was founded in 1791, named after President George Washington, and constitutes a unique “federal district” created specifically in the Constitution to be the seat of government.

The population of the District of Columbia itself is approximately 553,500. If you include the entire Metro area, the population reaches just over 5.8 million. (The “Washington Metropolitan Area” refers to the District of Columbia as well as surrounding towns and cities including Alexandria, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland.)

Buddhists monks and other tourists walk the circuit around the tidal basin and the Jefferson Memorial.  Water is incorporated into many of the monuments and memorials in the area around the national mall. Click through for image source.

Walking the circuit around the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. Water is incorporated into many of the monuments and memorials of the National Mall.

Every Spring the city is overtaken by a love of all things pink as soon as the capital’s cherry trees begin to blossom. Tourists flock to the city to engage in Hanami, the Japanese tradition of gazing at and contemplating the beauty of cherry blossoms in spring. The cherry trees, which line the Tidal Basin and frame the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, were a gift of friendship to the United States in 1912 from the people of Japan.

In Japan the flowering cherry tree, or “Sakura,” is an exalted flowering plant. The beauty of the cherry blossom is a potent symbol equated with the evanescence of human life and epitomizes the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages. DC celebrates this generous gift every Spring with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival featuring boat races, a parade, and cultural presentations from the Japanese embassy.

The space shuttle Discovery is the centerpiece of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.  Click through for image source.

The Space Shuttle Discovery is the centerpiece of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum.

When visitors and residents aren’t gazing at the blossoms, Spring offers the perfect weather for exploring the many buildings and collections of the Smithsonian Institute. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities.

One of the best aspects for visitors is that every Smithsonian facility admits visitors free of charge. A Scottish scientist James Smithsonian left nearly half a million dollars to the foundation of the museums in 1826 for the purpose of “increasing knowledge among men.” All of the museums are impressive, from the stunning Freer Gallery of Art to fascinating science and natural history museums.

Click through for image source. The Apollo 11 lunar module.

The Apollo 11 lunar module on display at the Smithsonian.

In fact, as a child, my favorite way to spend a Saturday was with my family exploring the dinosaur bones, insect zoo, fossils, and fist-sized precious gems of the Natural History Museum, including the iconic Hope Diamond.

My son, on the other hand, always chooses to visit the National Air & Space Museum’s two locations (on the National Mall and in Chantilly, Virginia) where he can see aviation artifacts such as the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest jet in the world), the Boeing Dash 80 (the prototype of the 707), and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.

Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Click through for image source.

The Smithsonian’s impressive Museum of the American Indian.

One of the newest editions to the Smithsonian collection is the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Even more than just a compelling feat of design and cultural diversity, inside the museum’s distinctive exterior lies one of the best food courts in the city, the  Mitsitam Native Foods Café.

The café, named for the Delaware and Piscataway peoples’ expression meaning, “let’s eat” features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. Each of the five food stations depict regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes. The fry bread, while less than healthy, is not to be missed.

New Year’s and the Fourth of July are a time for celebration in the city when fireworks illuminate the U.S. Capital Building and the Washington Monument. Click through for image source.

Each year Washington hosts grand fireworks displays on the Mall for New Year’s and the Fourth of July.

A warm summer night or refreshingly cool summer sunrise are the best times to jog, stroll, or wheel around the National Mall. On many evenings, city parks project movies for picnickers to enjoy and free concerts mark the start of the weekend in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. One of the best nights of summer is the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, featuring American artists like Dolly Parton and the United States Marine Corps Band.

DC is a city of monuments and memorials. These large stone structures offer tangible manifestations of American values, triumphs, and heartbreaks. In addition to serving as commemorative art, the memorials and monuments of the National Mall have born witness to great moments in American history.

It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing across the reflection pool and a crowd of 250,000 people, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for an end to racism in the United States. Click through for image source.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000 civil rights advocates.

The National Mall and Memorial Parks are part of the National Park Service and are home to an array of monuments highlighting the history of the United States. One of the largest is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, honoring the 32nd President and the era he represents, leading visitors through the Great Depression and the years leading up to WWII.

The most recent addition to the park is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. After two decades of planning, the monument opened in August 2011. Dr. King is the first African-American honored with a monument on the National Mall. The size and grandeur of the monument captures the inspiration that Dr. King represents in ongoing efforts to create a more perfect Union.

Click through for image source. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument.

Different styles and movements in art have been used to honor leaders and remember those touched by war and other sacrifice. Neoclassical structures like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials use Greek and Roman inspired elements to represent the democratic ideals and strength of the men they commemorate.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Asian American architect Maya Lin, uses an abstract design to honor the men and women who served when their nation called upon them. The World War II Memorial honors the service of sixteen million members of the Armed Forces of the U.S. during the war. The monument is framed by fifty six granite columns, split between two half circles that create a Rainbow Pool representing the nation’s unprecedented unity during wartime.

Click through for image source. The Jefferson Memorial at sunset is the sight of many marriage proposals including my own!

The Jefferson Memorial at sunset is the site of many marriage proposals, including my own!

American values and laws are carved in epic proportions onto functional buildings throughout the city, as well as onto adorning monuments. One example is the Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to journalism history. Chiseled on a 75-foot tablet on the outside of the building is the First Amendment, by which the People prohibit Congress from abridging the freedoms of speech and of the press.

Another example is the Old Post Office, which remains one of DC’s most visited attractions. Inscribed on the sides is a poem by former Harvard President, Dr. Charles W. Eliot. Titled “The Letter,” the poem extolls the importance of the mail system:

Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge
Instrument of Trade and Industry
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance
Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations.

The soldiers of the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial guard the Virginia entrance to the city. Click through for image source.

The valiant warriors of the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial forever guard the Virginia entrance to the city, a reminder of the sacrifices on which liberty rests.

No visit to DC is complete without viewing some of the most iconic buildings – the White House and the U.S. Capitol building. Located at 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue, the White House has been the official residence and workplace of every U.S. President since John Adams in 1800. Visits for groups are available can be arranged through the New Zealand Embassy in DC.

The U.S. Capitol building is another architectural and historic masterpiece. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson held a design competition and awarded amateur architect William Thorton the prize of $500 and a lot in the federal city to construct the capitol building. In 1960, the building was declared a national historic landmark. Visitors can tour the Capitol, viewing its impressive collection of art, sculpture, and visit the chambers where both the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sit for hearings.

More than just the quintessential collection of America’s books, the Library of Congress hosts cultural events such as concerts and readings and serves as a venue for elegant diplomatic and congressional receptions.Click through for image source.

The Library of Congress Reading Room, one of the most beautiful DC interiors.

One of my favorite weeks of the year in DC is Howard University Homecoming. An historic African American college located in the Petworth neighborhood, Howard University boasts students known for being some of the best-dressed in the United States.

Howard is not a school where students wear pajamas to class. They dress to impress, and never more so then when it comes to attending the school’s step team competitions or the drum line’s Homecoming half time show.

The star of Howard Homecoming is the marching band’s drum major who keeps time and leads the band in their half time performance. Click through for image source.

The star of Howard Homecoming is the marching band’s drum major, who keeps time and leads the half time performance.

Four of the divine nine historically African American fraternities and sororities, now known for their public service activities and step teams, were founded at Howard University in the early 1900s.

These fraternities and sororities used words, sounds, and movement to demonstrate allegiance to their organizations and in so doing created the dynamic performance style now known as “stepping.” (DC is also home to the group Step Afrika, which the Embassy sent to tour Samoa during the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year.)


The expression “step to the yard” is used to describe the experience of stepping in a large group in a public space, such as a campus green. The yard is a place where students can step together in unison, or battle by groups taking turns and escalating the difficulty and intensity of their routines.

Though stepping is traditionally aligned with college fraternities, the art form has become popular with high, middle, and elementary school students across the United States, as well as in churches and community-based organizations.  Latino and Asian American Greek-letter organizations have recently begun to embrace stepping and compete in step dance competitions.

Adam’s Morgan Day kicks off the first of many D.C. fall festivals in September with a variety of cultural hitting the streets for the crowds to enjoy. Click through for image source.

Adam’s Morgan Day kicks off the first of many DC fall festivals in September with a variety of cultural groups hitting the streets for crowds to enjoy.

A special neighborhood the you should be sure to visit – Adams Morgan – lies between the posh surroundings of Dupont Circle and Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row and the dynamic marketplace energy of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. Famous for its bars, Ethiopian restaurants, and falafel shops, Adams Morgan is the live music lover’s paradise.

Celebrating the many sounds and communities of the city, the neighborhood’s bars offer everything from Korean Karaoke to performances by West African drum group the Akoma Drummers. For bluegrass patrons flock to Madam’s Organ, a dive bar offering half price beer to all patron’s who sport the same red hair as the iconic female figure painted on the side of the building.

Click through for image source. The inside décor of Madam’s Organ.

The inside décor of Madam’s Organ.

Navigating the city’s streets is fun and interesting. Diagonal avenues cutting across the city are named for the 50 States. Grid streets carry alphabet and number names. During college, I spent my nights on M street in Georgetown, a historic neighborhood known for the like named University’s neo gothic buildings and its many shopping opportunities. Georgetown’s cobblestoned streets and charming brick facades balance with a bustling waterfront bar scene featuring boats that anchor next to outdoor bars and dinner cruises.

Heading northwest, visitors can experience a trip to what is often called the spiritual home of the nation – the National Cathedral. When President Washington commissioned Major Pierre L’Enfant to create a visionary plan for the nation’s capital, Pierre first imagined a “great church for national purposes.” It was not constructed until 100 years later. The Cathedral still serves as a place of worship, welcoming people of all faiths to service.  It has been the location for memorial services of nearly every President since its foundation was incorporated in 1893.

Click through for image source. The National Cathedral.

The National Cathedral.

On U Street – the corridor made famous by performers like Duke Ellington – people gather and talk about city news and personalities in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local joint beloved by residents of all ages. You can find everything on U Street from hip hop battles at the U Turn club to vintage sunglasses at one of the street’s many boutiques to food to fill your belly and soul at restaurants like Busboys & Poets.

Further East, the H Street neighborhood has been undergoing a renaissance in the last 10 years. Visitors can listen to indie bands at the Red & the Black, putt-putt indoors at the H Street Country Club, and watch cutting edge performing arts at the Atlas Performing Arts Centre.

Click through for image source. President Barak Obama, made sure to visit landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl after being elected.

President Barack Obama stops at the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Accessible on the city’s Metro rail transit system, no DC experience is complete without a visit to Arlington Cemetery. Still a working cemetery that holds more than 7,000 funerals a year, Arlington is also the final resting place for President John F. Kennedy, other historic American figures, and more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families. Saturday visitors are likely to witness a caissons rolling behind a riderless horse with backwards boots in the stirrups. This procession is an honor reserved for high ranking officers who have served in combat.

The cemetery is built on the lands of defeated civil war General Robert E. Lee.  At its center lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a memorial built to honor unidentified fallen service members. The Tomb is guarded with care and pride by an Honor Guard which performs a solemn ceremonial changing of the guard at the top of every hour. The Tomb is never left unattended, even during hurricanes or attack on the city.

Click through for image source.Tomb of the Unknown soldier is never left unattended.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Click through for image source. The Honor Guard remains at their post during fair weather and storms, guarding the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.

The Honor Guard remains at their post during fair weather and storms.

The second President of the United States, John Adams, once said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

DC lives every side of this sentiment. It is a hub for art and theater, as well as the seat of American government. Every morning, commuters in suits and badges crowd the city’s Metrorail public transit system and set about the business of shaping, enacting, and challenging public policy. During the city’s annual Gay Pride celebration, the fountain in the center of Dupont Circle overflows with bubbles and tinted water as city residents merge political activism with artistic expression and parade floats.

On Capitol Hill, Senate staffers strategize in the shadow of American sculptor Alexander Calder’s "Mountains and Clouds."  Click through for image source.

On Capitol Hill, Senate staffers work in the shadow of Alexander Calder’s “Mountains and Clouds.”

The local flavor of DC grows more pronounced in the winter months. Flash mob snowball fights break out in blizzards when social media networks are able to quickly mobilize tuned-in young professionals to flock to designated intersections, carrying signs and sporting colorful hats and scarves.

Members of Congress plod to work in snowshoes to meet with constituents when the unpredictable weather makes travel by typical means impossible. Music lovers line up at the city’s performing arts palace, the Kennedy Center, for the annual sing along of Handel’s Messiah.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.Please click through for image source.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on the banks of the Potomac.

One of the pleasures of Washington is that it has four distinct seasons, each offering unique opportunities and activities. In December an Ice Harbor is built in the National Harbor complete with ice slides and below zero snow suits. (We dragged my grandfather there last year and he loved it!)

Novice and expert ice skaters enjoy skating in the seasonal rink on the National Mall’s National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. Slightly further afield there is a full array of recreational opportunities, whatever the season. In winter you can enjoy skiing, tubing, and snowboarding in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, all an easy day-trip away.

Click through for image source. An impromptu snowball fight in Dupont Circle, a neighborhood known for its happy hour opportunities and the heart of the city’s annual summer Gay Pride festival.

An impromptu snowball fight in Dupont Circle.

Whatever the season, DC feels like home to me. It is a city of transplants who have come to make a difference in public service as well as locals whose families have lived in their neighborhood for generations. Whether new or longtime residents, people in DC are always ready to engage in a debate about the great philosophical questions of power, liberty, justice, truth, and freedom.

In taxi cabs, in line for the city’s official lunch (the “half smoke and a coke,” a hot dog and soda combination offered from food carts), and at brunch with friends, the architecture, purpose, and history of the city keeps people sharing their opinions and trying to convince one another that theirs is the correct answer. The hum of all these voices articulating different perspectives, with arguments ranging from poetic to senseless, washes over newcomers like a welcoming roar. The city wants you to join the conversation, and it won’t take no for an answer.

- EE

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For more information about what to see and do in Washington, DC, as well as for tips on where to stay and how to plan a trip, take a look at It’s an excellent resource filled with ideas, events, and itineraries. By clicking here you can also register to get a free Washington, DC Official Visitors Guide, a twice-yearly resource packed with the most current information on hotels, attractions, tours, restaurants, shops, and discounts.

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In a previous post I mentioned that my friends at Sports United, in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, had invited two dozen deaf student athletes from Samoa and other Pacific island countries to participate in a sports exchange program in Washington and New York City. The athletes have now returned to their home countries, and, from all I’ve seen and heard, the trip was a rousing success.

The athletes pose for a photo at the iconic Capitol Building.

The visiting athletes at the U.S. Capitol Building.

As you may recall, the four participants from Samoa were Seigafo Mavaega, Rosita Simone, Emo Lapi, and Ionatana Leutele, all students at Fa’atuatua Christian College and Senese Inclusive Education Services. They are highly accomplished athletes who were very much looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime. (Three of the four had not left Samoa or flown on a plane before.)

Ionatana Leutele on the starting block ready for his first race.

Ionatana Leutele on the starting block for one of his races while in the U.S.

Our four Samoan friends and the other participants convened in Washington, the first stop on the trip. They received VIP treatment right from the start, welcomed by my senior colleague at the State Department, Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. She is a powerful, tireless voice of advocacy for persons with disabilities, and I was delighted that she was able to meet with our visiting athletes.

The group visited the U.S. Department of State and had the opportunity to meet the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, Judith Heumann (3rd from left). Rosita is the seated at the far right.

Special Advisor Judith Heumann (at head of table, on left) greets the athletes, including Rosita (at far right).

Judith previously served as the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development, as well as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education under President Clinton. In her current role, she helps coordinate U.S. global engagement on issues regarding disabilities and disability rights. With our athletes, she talked about her own life experiences and explained her advocacy work on behalf of disabled persons around the world.

The athletes having some fun on their tour of the Lincoln Memorial.

The athletes at the Lincoln Memorial.

While in DC, the athletes also visited Gallaudet University. Established in 1864 by charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet is the only university in the world specifically established for deaf and hard of hearing students. While at Gallaudet, the athletes did the school’s famous ropes course and attended a deaf rugby game at its Model Secondary School for the Deaf.

Seigafo doing the ropes course at Gallaudet University.

Seigafo doing the ropes course at Gallaudet University.

The group also visited Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington,  and then traveled to Viriginia to George Mason University, to Maryland to the Maryland School for the Deaf, and to New York City to Lexington School for the Deaf (the largest school for deaf students in the State) and New York School for the Deaf (which has been teaching deaf students for 200 years).

Students from Roosevelt Senior High School made this special sign for the group.

Students from Roosevelt Senior High School welcome our visitors.

During all of those school visits the athletes engaged with American students and teachers on leadership building, conflict resolution, and teamwork activities and games. It was a great platform for interacting with students from another part of the world, and for sharing cultural and social experiences with each other.

Petaia points out Samoa to students at Gallaudet University

Coach Petaia talks about Samoa to students at Gallaudet University.

Of course, sports was a big part of the trip’s itinerary. In addition to playing matches and participating in other athletic events, the young visitors received high-level professional training. The visiting coaches completed special sessions on sports psychology, injury prevention, and disability and youth development. I’m told that all the participants enjoyed both the competition and the camaraderie built during the two weeks, and that the visiting athletes greatly impressed their American hosts.

Emo taking part in a sporting event at Roosevelt Senior High School.

Emo runs a course at Roosevelt Senior High School.

Seigafo shows students at George Mason University his high jump skills

Seigafo high jumps at George Mason University.

All in all, it sounds as though the trip was a great success. This was the first of several exciting programs planned by Sports United this year to protect and promote development of persons with disabilities, and I’m pleased that we started with a Pacific delegation. Thank you to program manager Kelli Davis and my other colleagues at Sports United for their foresight and generosity, and for organizing such a great study tour.

A farewell photo for students at the New York School for the deaf

Our visiting athletes and some new friends pose for a farewell photo at the New York School for the Deaf.

As with any such program, the value was 360. The American hosts learned a great deal about our neighbors in the South Pacific. Our visiting athletes and coaches were exposed to training, education, and other opportunities offered to people with disabilities within the American system. I am certain that everyone involved came away with new ideas, new friends, and useful networks.

I am packing today to head up to Samoa to participate in Samoan Independence Day celebrations and to greet the 400 American sailors arriving in Apia on the U.S. Pearl Harbor to work on infrastructure and medical projects under the auspices of our Pacific Partnership 2013 mission. While in town, I hope to talk directly to the Samoan students and coaches about their trip to the United States.

In the meantime, congratulations to our Samoan athletes. Well done. Fa’amalō le tausiniō.

dh sig