Sunday, July 26, 2009

Exploring D.C.’s Extra-Exurbs

This weekend, I decided to go beyond the museums and monuments of DC, to the Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah is roughly an hour and a half away from DC… an hour and a half assuming you don’t get lost. Of course, I got lost. HOWEVER, my lack of direction led me to meeting wonderful Virginians, and thus experiencing a little more of Virginia. For example, while in my lost state, I met a burly (and friendly) man with heavy duty suspenders. Unfortunately his sense of direction was not much better than mine, but together we figured out what road I should have been on and how to get there. Within this first encounter, Virginia’s multi-personalities exposed themselves. There is more than one Virginia indeed! I was flabbergasted the first time I heard that distinctive southern drawl, but then I remembered that yes, Virginia is in the South. It was still interesting to hear such a different accent in the same state as Crystal City, my residence for the last 7 weeks.

Moving on from the commute and the wonderful people I met, the landscape of Shenandoah was amazing. In mere car ride (relatively short car ride) I went from the hustle and bustle of DC to a tranquil park. Instead of buildings and fast walking political junkies, there were Mountains, trees, and skunks. During the day, I hiked up Old Rag. Although the Metro’s broken escalators (stairs) have been kicking my butt for the last couple weeks, hiking up boulders was quite the workout! I highly recommend traveling outside the city next time you get a chance.

My Day of Overflow

In order to obtain a decent seat at Senate hearings, one must arrive approximately one hour early. This hour is the opportune time to catch up on the news, read a book, or chat with other early arrivers. Although these long lines can be quite entertaining, they are simply prerequisites for the big event. The Congressional hearings depict congress members hard at work: states are bragged about (Amy Klobuchar = biggest fan of Minnesota), arguments are made public, and witnesses are grilled.

I have found there is always a kind of mysterious air exuding from political figures. Why is this? For those of us “political junkies”, Senators and Representatives are similar to celebrities. Nancy Pelosi is like the Paris Hilton of politics. Well…kind of. Maybe that is not the best analogy, Nancy Pelosi is tiers apart from Paris Hilton, but you get the picture. I have finally come to the conclusion that these political figures are not only one person, but hundreds, thousands, and millions of people, and this essentially contributes to their air of greatness.

Last Wednesday, my day of long lines and long waits did not equate into seeing these political figures however. Instead, I encountered a day of overflow. As the committee room doors opened, the line started filtering in, and I did not have a good feeling about my chances. I was towards the back of the line and there is only so much space in the rooms, especially bearing in mind the reserved rows of seats in the front and the massive media table permitted only to those with the special press badge (I once got called out for being “too close” to the table). So there I was, along with 30 plus other intern-looking people, being ushered up to the overflow room. Instead of being surrounded by the political elite, I sat and watched the political elite on a rather large flat screen television with…other interns (the future political elite, right?!??) Lucky for me, my overflow experience was not only in the morning, but I also encountered it in the afternoon. It was a great experience…to not repeat. I’ll get there earlier next time.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ideas of the Future

Yesterday, I had the humble honor of attending a speech given by former President Bill Clinton. He was speaking to us, college students, at the fifth annual Campus Progress conference in Washington DC. He sought to inspire us, this room of wide-eyed youth brimming with progressive ideas and enthusiasm, to do something. Yes, simply to do…something. Everyone wants to make a difference; everyone wants to be great; everyone wants to do something with their lives; everyone wants a purpose. But people, we can’t do these things with the wave of our finger. Bill Clinton’s challenge to us: do something. It takes but one small idea to make a world of difference.

He held up a small, hockey-puck sized, chunk of recycled paper products. He said something to the effect of it not being “as sexy” as a smooth speech or a powerful demonstration, but this paper puck has saved millions of lives around the world. Having just returned from Haiti, Clinton told us the story of 8 Haitians who decided to take a stand against both the failing waste management system and the deforestation of their land. Essentially, trees were being systematically cut down to produce charcoal which Haitians use for cooking, heating, and laundry. As more trees were harvested, Haiti, which depends on trees to act as water barriers for hurricanes, was suffering the loss of home after home after home as water repeatedly flooded the city. Meanwhile, garbage littered the streets, essentially trashing the capitol city of Port-au-Prince.

The 8 Haitians, about whom Clinton was speaking, got an idea. They employed local impoverished Haitians to pick up the trash littering their city, bring it to a warehouse, and sort it. The recycled paper was mixed in a vat with wood shavings (collected free-of-charge from a local furniture maker) and water. The goopy mixture was then stamped into blocks and the water was compressed out. The resulting paper puck, referred to as “recycled paper briquettes,” was then ready for sale. Every bit as effective as charcoal, these pucks could replace it at a cheaper price. The streets are more clean, people are employed, the production of charcoal has gone down resulting in the maintenance of existing forests, and impoverished people can more affordably heat their homes, cook, and do laundry.

Clinton shared this story with us to demonstrate the importance of an idea. The cost of this project was minimal; the benefits are (and will continue to be) hugely significant. All it took was the brain power of a couple of people, some time, and work. When Clinton held up the paper puck he challenged us to do something. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be “sexy.” It just has to be. These ideas are the future of our world.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Independence Day in DC

To sum up celebrating the 4th of July in the nation's capitol, my word of choice would be BUSY. I spent the weekend playing tour guide to friends that were visitng. From capitol tours, to monuments, markets, and the mall, our days were spent seeing all that DC has to offer. Our nights were equally packed with dinners, fireworks, and drinks on rooftop bars. We weren't the only people participating in this sight-seeing extravaganza- the entire city was packed with patriots celebrating our nation's independence. I'd say the energy of the weekend was pretty high, as everyone was in awe over the opportunity to spend the holiday among the monuments and historical buildings. Celebrating 4th of July in DC was truly an unforgettable experience.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

4th of July

To be honest, the following words are actually trivial in comparison to the experience. Fourth of July in Washington DC is one of the ultimate “once in a life time opportunities.” The day started off like any other, but once we traveled to the heart of DC, the National Mall, the uniqueness of the day was revealed. DC is usually a crowded city considering it has many attractions for tourists and the fact that it is a place of work for our country’s government as well. But the masses of people that descended on the small city on the 4th were astounding.

We arrived well before the main event of the evening, fireworks. They were scheduled to begin shortly after dusk and we started staking out our seats while the sun was still high in the sky. The time passed quickly though. It was fun to be around so many people and to be positioned between two magnificent structures – the Capitol behind us and the Washington Monument in front of us. When the fireworks show started there were a few ooos and awws, but then the entire crowd, that spanned miles, fell silent. It was absolutely magnificent to watch the spectacle of fireworks with the backdrop of the Washington Monument.

We walked away from the mall with the realization that we had just experience something unforgettable. I will always remember the 4th of July I spent in America’s capital celebrating our freedom.