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Washington DC: Portrait Of A Capital City

Another film project takes me to Washington.

Washington DC
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WASHINGTON DC- I’m sitting in the lobby of an upscale Marriott Hotel in DC. I’m drinking a Spindrift that I got at a Starbucks that’s conjoined to the hotel.

Something about this place and this setting is giving me the tingle of nostalgia.

It is making me think of when I was traveling through Asia and Eastern Europe writing for Forbes, doing book events, and giving talks about ghost cities and new silk roads …

I would often stay in hotels that outclassed my actual status. I would often be put up in them by employers or event organizers, or I would at least hang out and drink in them. I delighted in my forays into the strange universe of the rich and powerful. And, as always, I felt extremely comfortable in my outsider status. (It’s being an insider that’s awkward and challenging.)

There was just something quiet, solitudinous about that span of life.Even though things regularly went off the hook and some true adventures were had, I had this distance from everything that I truly enjoyed.

I was alone.

I had time.

I was alone and had time to sit and think and write.

That was my job. To travel, look at things, and talk with people. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that they paid me for it.

As I sit in the lobby of an upscale Marriott in DC calmly preparing to film a US congressman for a movie that I’m making, I’m feeling very much the same as I did then. I have my checkered pink blazer on, my Ranger boots are kicked up onto a foot rest, there are neatly dressed business people scurrying in front of me or sitting nearby held captive by their phones. I don’t belong here and I like it.


Some places in the world have character in their extreme lack of character. Excessive yang becomes yin. DC is a capital city that looks and feels like a capital city.

Like Astana, Putrajaya, Canberra, Brasilia, whatever the fuck China is building in Xiong’an, a good capital is an empty, cold, sterile landscape sharp right angles, ridiculously long blocks, broad streets, and an architectural style that can be summed up in one word: edifice. These capital cities are living monuments designed to exude power … and to make you feel small. And by this criteria DC is probably the best designed capital city in the world.

Washington DC

It is the big emptiness of central DC that has always intrigued me. Where NY is tightly crammed together with cultures melting on top of each other and streets full of life and dialogue and WTF?!?, DC is a lifeless 1:1 scale model of a city where humans are an invasive mold creeping over the broad stone facades. New York is built for humans; DC is built for pharaohs.

I did a series of trips to DC in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2020 election. I was filming for a documentary about the culture wars and things were going apeshit and I had to document it. This project culminated in being part of the only professional crew to film J6.

I glimpsed the ugly core of humanity and recoiled from it. But each time I come back to DC I’m reminded. I filmed someone getting stabbed here. I filmed someone being trampled to death there. I was bear sprayed on this corner. I filmed a guy get beat down for wearing the wrong political colors on that corner. I watched a group of elderly women waving Trump flags have a garbage can dumped on them by young men clad in black …

It’s almost like the vacuity of the place sparks a particular type of insanity. Or maybe that’s just politics …

I lost my faith in humanity somewhere along the line during that project. No, I will rephrase that: I saw what we really are and came to terms with it. Violence, tribalism, and a thirst for conflict aren’t glitches, they’re features, and are probably some of the reasons why we’re still here.

It’s always surprised me how accessible US government officials are to regular people. I found this out in 2008 when I unexpectedly joined a group of lobbyists who met with a congressman’s aide.  You can just go to the Rayburn building and walk right in. You go through a simple security screening which amounts to metal detector, nobody asks you any questions or if you have an appointment … While I can’t say for certain, I don’t think it’s like this anywhere else in the world.

My interview went well. I kept it simple and only built a two camera, one light set. When interviewing government officials I usually don’t expect to get much usable material. But in this case, the congressman was on-point, interesting, and sometimes even funny. At one point in the interview I remember thinking, “Wow, I can actually use this.”


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Filed under: Washington DC

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Bob L December 5, 2023, 10:21 am

    Great post. Can’t wait for the congress critter’s interview.

    Link Reply
    • VBJ December 5, 2023, 9:52 pm

      Thanks! It’s for a film about offshore wind farms. No idea when it will be finished but it probably shouldn’t be one that I work on for too long.

      Link Reply
      • Jack December 7, 2023, 1:05 am

        Tell me you interviewed Massie for that 🙂

      • VBJ December 10, 2023, 12:24 pm

        Haha not quite!