09/24/2014 04:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tourist Snapshot: Meeting Visitors From All Over The World Just a Block From My Office


Tourists take photos in front of the White House.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The thought came to me on my way to work one morning. I was speed-walking through Lafayette Square and past the White House, dodging tourists as they took snapshots of each other.

I looked around at the army of other drones on their way to work in the office buildings in the area. And then I thought: What if, instead of treating tourists as an obstacle, we slowed down and appreciated them?

Tourists have been one of the best and worst parts of living in D.C. the past five years. I love that I can walk down the street and see people from all over the world who are excited to be in "my city." I hate that I can get stuck behind a busload of eighth-graders while I'm running to catch a Metro train.

The Norris-Warton family from England, Jackie, Ben, Amberley and David, was visiting D.C. for just 48 hours.

So in an effort to see tourists in a new light, I decided to try something new for a month. I would take a deep breath, linger a moment longer and offer to take a group (or individual) photo for some tourists each day as I pass the White House. Those photos often morphed into a conversation, however brief.

I saw a woman from Chicago who was struggling to take an awkward White House selfie -- fixing her hair, tilting her chin, smoothing her dress and trying to get just the right parts in the frame -- and I offered to snap a photo for her.

I chatted with a middle-aged couple from Mainz, Germany, who had bought 10 guidebooks before making their trip and took their photo by the fence.

I used some rudimentary hand signals to communicate that I was offering to take a photo for a woman who spoke almost no English. She was wearing blue jeans and appeared to be about age 40. After I snapped a shot of her with the White House in the background, she was able to tell me she was visiting from China.

After a month, I had made 22 stops to meet tourists, and 10 of these people or groups were from outside the United States. I had taken 21 tourist snapshots in front of the White House: eight with people's point-and-shoot or SLR cameras and 13 with smartphones. (One couple wasn't taking photos when I approached; we just started chatting.)

I met a number of interesting people. David Law, the head of corporate finance in Africa for an international bank, was in town for the President's Young African Leaders Initiative. When I first saw him, Law was standing in the hot sun in front of the White House, wearing a suit and taking a picture on his iPhone. "How did you know I was a tourist?" he asked me. Let's be honest. Not a lot of D.C. businessmen pause to admire the White House.

Law had been across Lafayette Square at the Hay-Adams hotel to check on arrangements for a YALI event scheduled there. That night, he was headed to the British Embassy.

Law travels often for his job. He was in D.C. for just two days but said he always tries to see a bit of the cities he's visiting. He doesn't want to look back when he's older and say "I've traveled to all these countries and didn't see anything while I was there," he told me.

A family from a coastal town in southern England was also eager to chat after hearing I was a journalist. Jackie Norris-Warton said one of the most curious things she had noticed in the U.S. was how pro-Israel the nation's media coverage was of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. She felt Americans weren't getting a full picture of the suffering of innocent people -- and children -- in Gaza.

Norris-Warton was there with husband David, son Ben, 16, and daughter Amberley, 10. David's schedule as an airline captain allowed the family just a couple of days in D.C. Ben, his father noted, is interested in studying international law, adding importance to the trip for him.

But I discovered not everyone on vacation feels they have the leisure time to talk to a stranger. A number of the groups I photographed couldn't tell me much more than where they lived before scurrying off to stay on schedule. A couple from Italy said they had to catch up with their tour group. The father of a family from Illinois mentioned they were "trying to do everything we can in four days" before hurrying to their next stop. A teenager with a family from San Jose, Calif., was distracted by the arrival of a motorcade and pulled her parents away to watch. (No, it wasn't the president this time.)

Jon and Jessica Andersen from Hilliard, Ohio, were visiting Washington, D.C., for a week. Though both had been to the District when they were younger, this was their first time visiting together. Jon was excited to see Ford's Theatre, and Jessica thought the tour of the inside of the White House was great.

Others looked at me warily when I offered to take a photo for them. I could only imagine what they might be thinking: Why are you helping me? Are you going to run off with my camera? Is this a trick?

As a tourist myself at times, I understand the resistance to making a new best friend with a stranger in another country (or even state). Look up travel tips, and you're sure to find a warning about pickpockets and hucksters in any country or big city. Yet, talking to locals can elevate the experience. Instead of just seeing the monuments, you can find an authentic educational and cultural experience.

When I spent a few days traveling on my own in India in 2011, one of my most fascinating days was when I allowed a local boy I met on the street to lead me around Jaipur for an afternoon, pausing to see a men's prayer circle and to enter a busy Hindu temple -- things I likely wouldn't have done on my own. (My mom, who might not have heard about this until now, will be happy to hear that I had my safety in mind and was insistent we stick to highly populated areas of downtown.)

After 30 days of meeting White House tourists, I do have a new appreciation for the visitors I pass on the street each day.

Someone once told me you should move from D.C. when you reach the point that you take the monuments (and Capitol and White House) for granted. Luckily, I still find myself admiring them as I pass by and pausing to snap a photo on a particularly gorgeous day.

Of course, that doesn't mean I won't complain to my friends about the group of five tourists walking slowly and taking up the entire sidewalk at the end of the day as I rush to catch my bus home.

This post is part of the Third Metric Challenge series. We invite you to find a creative way to incorporate the pillars of the Third Metric (well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving) into your life and share your story. To submit a post, email