Early Monday, 41 foreign ambassadors and their spouses caught flights from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to "Experience America."
"Washington, D.C., is not America," said Ambassador Kailash Ruhee of the Republic of Mauritius. "D.C. is the center of power for the U.S., and it's extremely important, but also it's extremely important to know what else is happening in the other states."
U.S. Chief of Protocol Nancy Brinker, a former ambassador to Hungary, decided to survey all 186 foreign ambassadors posted inside the beltway on what they thought would help them do their jobs better. She found that they wanted to know more about America. Hence the State Department's "Experience America" tour.
In January, the ambassadors traveled to Florida for a few days, where they visited a solar energy center, Kennedy Space Center and Disney's Epcot Center.
Now, they're spending a week in the Golden State.
After a brief breakfast (endive, pasta and shrimp salad; lunch meats and bread; fruit) and opening comments by Brinker, the ambassadors piled onto two alphabetically and geographically apportioned tour buses. Bus 1: Antigua through Luxembourg. Bus 2: Macedonia through Uganda.
First on the agenda was a sneak peek at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a nearly $1-billion comprehensive health facility that will open Sunday. After a presentation by hospital leaders, the group was primed to see the high-tech, empty wards.
"I'd like to be a patient here," said Ambassador Michael Collins of Ireland.
"You almost feel like getting sick," Ambassador Ruhee said as the group traveled in an elevator up to the Neuroscience/Stroke and Intensive Care Units on the sixth floor.
Murmurs of awe accompanied the group throughout much of the tour. Only $40 million of the money used to build the hospital was from the state, while much of the rest was from private sources. ("That's very unique to America," Collins said of the large share of private funds.)
And then, no one is ever turned away from the UCLA facilities, officials said. The new hospital will treat everyone with its high-tech devices. Again, murmurs of amazement.
"It's very cool, you can learn lots about new technologies," said Ambassador Armando A. Panguene of the Republic of Mozambique. "But this is beyond our reach," he said with an abrupt laugh, "for many years."
On the basement level was Simon, a simulated patient who went into cardiac arrest. It was a group effort to bring him back.
Ambassador Bockari K. Stevens of Sierra Leone was named the doctor, and he listened to Simon's heart with a stethoscope. Ambassador Lorempo Tchabre Landjergue of the Republic of Togo took on the oxygen pump. Ruhee helped with chest compressions. Then a defibrillator was brought out and Rose, the wife of Ambassador Peter N.R.O. Ogego of the Republic of Kenya, completed the life-saving operation.
"What's fascinating is the economics of this whole thing," Collins said. "It's a fantastic facility, but $1 billion? Only in Los Angeles can you have some sort of facility like this. . . . In all of our countries, the economics of medicine is a huge issue, and the politics of medicine -- getting people the best care. This is almost counterintuitive here, because getting this is incredibly costly."
After a look at the emergency department, it was back to the buses for a Los Angeles traffic experience. The drive to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley took about 1 1/2 hours with a police escort.
It was a stop that Ambassador Albert Jonsson of Iceland was looking forward to. Jonsson studied political science and was a former journalist for an Icelandic radio station during the historic meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He toured Reagan's former office and rooms in the library with his camera out. "Very nice, very nice," he said.
Brinker said the ambassadors pay their own expenses on the trips, which deal with topics in which the ambassadors have expressed interest.
"This is one of the most important postings you could have, Washington," Brinker said. "So they're people who are very important, important communicators and educators. They can communicate what they've learned here."
Then the group got a chance to look at the archives, a room in which all presidential memorabilia, birthday cards, letters and gifts are kept.
Jonsson found a book that was given to the late president to mark the historic Gorbachev-Reagan meeting and took a photo in front of it. Ambassador Charles A. Minor of Liberia found an ivory spoon and trinket box from his homeland.
"To know that our first lady at the time of President Reagan gave a very nice gift, I'm proud to see," Minor said.
And then Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovics of Latvia saw a silver coin from the Latvian Republic given to Reagan by dissidents who wanted to memorialize their pre-Iron Curtain country. He took a photo.
"During his tenure, my country was still behind the Iron Curtain," Pildegovics said. "So President Reagan was a big defender of freedom in Latvia. Latvians consider we owe a lot to that gentleman. He was keeping the flame of freedom alive. . . . For me, on this trip, this place is one of the most important. So it's very meaningful."
Soon enough, the ambassadors were ushered through the museum to Air Force One and a cocktail reception.
Today, they will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech.
"So many diplomats are really not able to travel," said Ambassador Bisera Turkovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. " . . . It's sort of like laying a foundation, understanding the country, understanding the business community."