A Staring Contest in Washington DC, Chinese Explorers & Silk Worm Culinary Surprise

Word on the Street: 8 Questions with Gilbert

In each edition of “Word on the Street,” we interview a Guide to learn about their Sidewalk and some of their best travel stories.

Meet Gilbert, the Guide behind “Heroes of the Past: Tributes from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.” He dishes on symbolic architecture in the Nation’s Capitol, Bhutanese monasteries, and 15th century seafarers.

What will I encounter on the “Heroes of the Past” Sidewalk?

This is the part of Washington DC that really stands out. The main monuments relate to three of the outstanding presidents that we have had - Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington. There are also memorials to several wars that the US engaged in, all of which were recent enough that many people may have a family member or friend who fought in one of the wars.

What aspect of a memorial should people definitely check out on this walk?

One of the memorials that is important to me is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. It is intentionally located in a line between the Jefferson Memorial and the White House.

What is fascinating is that the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr looks directly at Thomas Jefferson’s statue - there is a lot of symbolism there. Despite Jefferson’s progressive thinking that all men are created equal, he still owned slaves. Equality was not fully formed.

What is something you hope people will internalize as a result of going on your Sidewalk?

Federal Reserve Building, Washington DC 

Federal Reserve Building, Washington DC 

You will get a very different sense of Washington DC as you pass some of the critical institutions and buildings of the city - the Organization of American States, Federal Reserve, National Academy of Sciences, State Department. Each building incorporates design elements from Ancient Greece and Rome, and the architecture represents the importance of the work going on inside.

Like the Federal Reserve Building?

Exactly, the Federal Reserve Building is massive. And the square columns and dark windows screams “rock-solid stable and valuable” - everything that the government would want to symbolize in a bank.

The National Academy of Sciences is perhaps the most unique building in DC. While other buildings predominantly feature English on the facade, the National Academy of Sciences has Greek letters, which is a tribute to the early developers of science. They emphasize the connection to the past. The US is an extension of Ancient Greece’s culture of advancement and progress for science, mathematics, democracy, and the idea of the republic.

What is the craziest thing you have ever eaten?

Gilbert Donahue_Word on the Street_Sidewalk Blog

Many years ago in Hong Kong, there was a Chinese businessman who wanted to impress his guests with delicacies from southern China. My colleagues after dinner asked me how I could eat the silk worms - they had long since dropped their chopsticks. I told them that they did not taste like much - short pieces of spaghetti. One of my friends pointed out that the silk worms were moving.

Where have you been that everyone should definitely go?

Bhutan and the Himalayan mountains. For people looking for vistas and a sense of relative isolation, you can’t beat it. If you go to Bhutan, be sure to visit the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). It is built into the side of a cliff.

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan

Half of the experience is just getting there. It is a challenging hike because you start at 7k feet and climb to 10k feet, but there is a different view at every bend. You walk through a mountain path with pine trees, waterfalls and vistas of valleys and other mountains. Sometimes the monastery peeks out and it seems close by when it is not.

If you could travel with any stranger, dead or alive to anywhere in the world, who would it be and where would you go?

It would have been interesting to travel with Zheng He on his voyages to Africa. Zheng He was a Ming Dynasty eunuch who assembled a fleet of ships and sailed them to Southeast Asia, India and East Africa in the early 15th century.

The fleet was meant to “show the flag” and demonstrate China’s high level of culture. I think everyone he encountered at ports would have been astounded because his ships were larger than anything that was built at that point in time, and obviously, the crew would have looked very different from everyone else.

The reason we know the extent of Zheng He’s travels is because archeologists have found Ming Dynasty vases in India and East Africa from that period.

What happened to Zheng He?

When he returned to China, the emperor who had supported his voyage had died. The succeeding emperor mandated that all the ships be burned along with their designs. All plans for future trips were cancelled. Clearly the new emperor was an Isolationist.

A great opportunity for China was forgone. Fifty years later, the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and they had a different agenda: militaristic force, colonialism, and dominating trade.

Gil_Word on the Street_Sidewalk Blog

About Gilbert: A native of Virginia, he is a seasoned international traveler, having lived in or traveled to over 60 countries. He enjoys bringing visitors to Washington's many famous historical, literary and artistic sites.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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