War Reporters' Top Travel Secrets
Even hardened, world-weary reporters like to tell jokes—especially ones about travel. Overheard at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Istanbul: “So, the journalist goes up to the baggage check and says, ‘I want to send this bag to Ulaanbaatar and the other one to Rio.’”
Travel savvy, a sense of humor, and the ability to talk your way into anything are practically job requirements for gonzo foreign correspondents, who are world-class authorities on everything from roadside bombs to lost luggage. If you’ve been covering wars, coups, and natural disasters for years—and not only stayed alive, but stayed on budget and filed on deadline—chances are you’re a pretty smart traveler.
But these journalists also know a lot of travel secrets that might come in handy even for those not planning on taking a bullet, like how to tip and how to bribe. (Keep your bribe money reachable and separate from your main stash.) So Travel + Leisure asked some of the world’s most intrepid foreign correspondents for travel advice—what to pack, how to dress, how to meet people overseas, and how to stay out of trouble (or get into it) anywhere from Belarus to the Bahamas.
Their counsel ranges from always traveling with a roll of duct or gaffer’s tape—which has literally hundreds of on-the-fly uses, from sealing air mattresses to keeping your coffee cup warm—to avoiding mishaps large and small on the road by making sure your driver really does speak English. (Newsweek magazine’s Owen Matthews recommends asking drivers what they had for breakfast as a test.)
Even something as small as knowing which side of the road people drive on is key. “Looking left and stepping out into traffic can get you killed in a left-hand-side-drive country,” says Adnan R. Khan, who knows something about dangerous activities—he’s interviewed militant leaders and witnessed fighting firsthand at Pakistan’s Red Mosque. “My trick is: left-right-left...right-left-right, and then make a run for it.”
Also, don’t stand up for lost causes—when you’re abroad, it’s not the time to take pride in the lewd slogans on your T-shirts or your tattoos. “Outside the U.S., people actually do care about how they dress,” says David Gross, who since 1999 has been documenting the aftermath of genocide from the Balkans to Iraq. “Scruffy jeans will lower your social status in much of the world.” Instead, look respectable, and always bring an outfit suitable for dining with an ambassador—you never know when you might get an invitation.
Above all, meet people. Never forget, says Daria Vaisman—who nearly contracted anthrax while investigating a secret biological weapons manufacturing facility in Kazakhstan—that travel is a romance.
“A good introduction is worth 10 guidebooks,” adds Hugh Pope, who has been covering the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, the Independent, Reuters, and UPI for 30 years, and who once used a good introduction to escape being executed by al-Qaeda. “Remember that real travel is going with the flow, meeting new people and accepting their invitations, not retracing the exactly choreographed steps of 1,000 package tours.”
Tip: Make your driver take an English language test.
Why: The most dangerous thing in the world is a car without brakes, bald tires, and a driver who pretends to speak English. Check the vehicle, then assess your driver’s language skills to ensure you stick to your desired itinerary—and avoid any trouble.
War Reporter Testimony: Newsweek magazine’s Owen Matthews—who covered the Chechen war and the bombing of Afghanistan—advises vetting drivers: “Ask them what they had for breakfast. If they can answer you in English, hire them. You’d be amazed how far non-English speakers can get on pure bluff, then put you in serious danger when they don’t understand your instructions.”
Tip: Bring a dressy outfit.
Why: Whether you’re going to Paris or the jungle, pack a tie and proper shoes. Formal attire shows respect to people whose patronage you need—and you never know who will invite you to dinner.
War Reporter Testimony: Alan Chin, who was twice nominated by the New York Times for the Pulitzer, adds that cleaning up can boost morale: “In 2003, I spent three months covering the invasion of Iraq. I got dust into areas of my body that I didn’t know existed.” Finally, he took a vacation in Jordan with his girlfriend. “I can’t describe how good it felt when we went out to dinner—to be clean, wearing a crisp white dress shirt, and looking and behaving like a normal person instead of a war-and-death-obsessed madman.”
Tip: Bring a cell phone with GPS.
Why: With a GPS, you’ll never look like a tourist fumbling with a map in the middle of the street again; it can show you the location of cash machines, landmarks, and hotels. Most important, if you’re in trouble, you can give rescuers your exact location.
War Reporter Testimony: Angela Cumberbirch has spent the past 10 years documenting the aftermath of Peru’s internal armed conflict. She recommends renting a Blue Cosmo Globalstar GSP-1700 portable satellite phone: “There’s a tracer available to track positions in remote zones,” she says, “and many search and rescue teams have GPS satellite tracing equipment.”
Tip: Bring condoms—for your camera.
Why: Camera lenses are prone to scratching and unexpected water damage. Condoms are the ultimate lightweight protection.
War Reporter Testimony: Elizabeth Pisani has worked for Reuters and the Economist in Hong Kong, New Delhi, and Jakarta, but she’s best known for her controversial book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS. A condom, she advises, is the essential travel accessory. “Not only do condoms protect you from nasty diseases and make a fantastic first aid tool (insert into bullet wound and inflate to stanch the bleeding), but they’re great for keeping sand and water out of lenses and other equipment.”
Tip: Scan your documents and e-mail them to yourself.
Why: Scan your passport, telephone numbers, and credit card information and then e-mail them to yourself before you travel. This way, you’ll be able to get copies wherever there’s Internet access.
War Reporter Testimony: While rushing to catch a plane to Azerbaijan, photojournalist David Gross accidentally grabbed his expired passport instead of his valid one. He ended up a hostage of the suspicious authorities in the arrival hall—just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. “Without copies of your documents,” he says, “you’re yet another illegal in transit.”
Tip: Make sure health insurance covers you abroad.
Why: It’s a must in Fallujah. But even Cancun can get hairy. When you’re embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, you need the peace of mind only medical evacuation insurance can bring—but frankly, you need heath coverage anywhere you might get ill or be injured, which is everywhere, and your policy at home might not apply overseas.
War Reporter Testimony: Phil Zabriskie, who covered the battle of Fallujah for Time magazine, says “health insurance and safety abroad is a big issue, and you’ll get a better deal if you promise to stay out of war zones.”
Tip: Pack tape.
Why: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—but if it is, this stuff is magic. Use duct or gaffer's tape to seal air mattresses, splice headphones, fashion a rain cover for your camera, even as a coffee cozy.
War Reporter Testimony: Former Army Times photographer James J. Lee has clung to lampposts in hurricanes, waded through the mud of the Asian tsunami, and been blown off his feet by suicide bombers in Iraq—but he’s held it together with gaffer’s tape. “I’ve used it to hang flashes, seal out light and dust from windows, tape up self-inflicted wounds, the list goes on.”
War Reporters' Top Travel Secrets
Tip: Know how to steer clear of trouble.
Why: If you’re a typical vacation traveler, chances are you want to fly away from storms and war zones, not toward them. But either way, you need to know where trouble lies—right now.
War Reporter Testimony: Countless foreign correspondents rely on Hot Spots, a free daily intelligence report issued by ASI Group’s Global Risk Management Services, to find good stories—or steer well clear of them. It keeps travelers advised of global threats such as terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks, but also of protest marches, strikes, and tropical storms.
Tip: Smile. Meet people.
Why: Guidebooks can’t substitute for meeting locals abroad. If you can make friends with one person, you’re in with all their friends. If it works on the Tajik-Afghan border, it will work for you.
War Reporter Testimony: Daria Vaisman has tracked a swine flu epidemic in Georgia, chased opium traders in Afghanistan, and toured an anthrax factory in a secret city in Kazakhstan—making new friends everywhere she went. “Follow the same rules as any pickup,” she advises. “Sit at a café. Walk around looking confused. Ask for directions. I’ve been taken to people’s villages this way, fed, and feted by their mothers.”
Tip: Wear the “magic cloak of innocence.”
Why: You know you’re not a spy. But do they? Play it safe in crowds and avoid drawing attention to yourself and unsuspecting trouble by following this easy rule.
War Reporter Testimony: Hugh Pope recently wrote Dining with al-Qaeda, a memoir of three decades covering the Middle East. “I know I’m not threatening, but in my line of work I have often had to meet people who assume otherwise. I have therefore learned to project a conviction of my own benevolence—open-eyed and forthright, not weakly ingratiating. I believe it has saved me many times, from navigating crowds to the night in Saudi Arabia when I had to talk an al-Qaeda missionary out of killing me.”