2013 roundup: Reporters' backstories on the big stories

A 2013 roundup of Monitor reporters' backstories on the big stories. 'What I did on my way to a headline' can be as interesting as the big story itself. Here are some tales – from dirty laundry to drone attacks – that you’d hear if you sat down at a dinner party with a Monitor correspondent.

JT Thomas
2013 roundup of reporters' backstories on the big stories is the cover story for the double issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine for Dec. 30, 2013-Jan. 6, 2014.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The foreign correspondent’s dirty-laundry problem; how it feels to get the Chinese Communist ‘hustle,’ hauled by your elbows out of a place; making painful calls – by phone or in person – to people targeted by drone bombings. Behind every article you read in the news is a reporter’s own personal story. Professional dross, it’s raconteur’s gold. “What I did on my way to a headline” can be boastful, mournful, profane, hysterically funny, or epiphanic – but it’s always interesting. Here are some tales you’d hear if you sat down at a dinner party with Monitor correspondents:

Drone target: a friend’s village

By Adam Baron, in Sanaa, Yemen

Whenever word of a new drone strike in Yemen arrives, I immediately grab my phone. Initial reports are often vague. The only way to get through the fog is to talk to someone on the ground.

But even if I’ve made more drone-strike calls than I can count, I still tense up just thinking about making one: I worry whether I’ll accidentally say the wrong thing, whether my commitment to journalistic objectivity will cause me to sound cold or insensitive. That I’ve never actually had a call end in disaster does little to ease my trepidation. Still, I doubt anything will ever compare to what I was feeling before the call I made on April 18 – when I saw initial reports of a drone strike in the center of the country and realized the target was in my best friend’s village.

My friendship with Farea al-Muslimi felt intuitive from the moment we met. It’s hard to believe that an American from a well-off family and a Yemeni farmer’s son could share such a close bond. But even if it is no secret that Farea has had to work tirelessly to get access to much of what I’ve taken for granted, the differences between us have never seemed to matter. I couldn’t help but worry whether that was about to change as I dialed his number after hearing about the strike.

The tone of Farea’s voice conveyed his devastation. Grants from one arm of the US government he noted, his words dripping with guilt, had allowed him to go to college; now missiles from another had struck his hometown. We spoke multiple times that night and agreed to meet in the morning, but when I made a dozen calls the next day and he didn’t answer, I worried that he was taking things out on me. I was at a meeting when he finally called back and apologized, saying he was so upset that he hadn’t been able get out of bed. We both made a beeline to my apartment.

Deadlines were far from my mind that night. I had no clear idea of what I was supposed to do or say – it just seemed as if we needed to be around each other. Farea apparently felt the same. We sat and talked for hours. By the time the sun rose, we were both exhausted, but our friendship was closer than ever.

I’m fortunate to have friends like Farea, to have relationships in which vast cultural differences feel like footnotes. I doubt I’d survive in Yemen without them in a place as complicated as this. It’s a blessing to be able to count on something so simple and pure.

You’re no woman; you’re a reporter 

By Whitney Eulich, in San Sebastían, El Salvador

I had only known José for an hour when he implied I wasn’t a real woman.

“Women aren’t allowed in mines,” the self-taught, “artisanal” miner told me. “They scare away the gold.”

The thing is, we were far enough into the dank, rock-walled tunnel that the darkness had extinguished the sliver of sunlight from the mine’s only exit. Did he not know my gender? I’m tall – even by US standards – and was wearing a nerdy baseball hat to block the pounding coastal sun. But I’d like to think my femininity still shined through.

I’d followed José into the mine to get a better idea of what his work is like as an informal, essentially illegal, gold miner. His well-worn hammer and stake were tucked into his track pants, and his elastic-banded headlamp was the only light illuminating our path in the 5-foot-wide and 5-1/2-foot-high tunnel.

I’d spent the entire week leading up to this visit learning about the controversy around mineral mining in El Salvador, and had yet to meet anyone actually doing the work. There has been a de facto ban on mining since 2008, and many activists are pushing to make this small Central American country the first in the world to make mining illegal. 

José and his ragtag team of five young men had already shown me how to test rock samples for gold. I’m not a natural prospector: The ground-up stone and water combinations all looked like muck to me. So we headed into the mine to see other steps in the process. 

The first 10-foot stretch of the tunnel was supported by rough-cut wooden beams, and my feet sank in the mud near the entrance, where the air smelled like fresh rain.

As I moved deeper into the blackness, I could stand up a bit taller. The air was increasingly chilly, and my right hand trailed along the damp contours of the wall as I tried to stay close to José’s light. The silence was deafening after an hour of hammering and scratching stone amid a chorus of crickets outside the mine.

About 50 yards into the mine, I crouched next to José as he shone his headlamp down a 10-foot hole that he and his team had dug, and I asked about his family. Did they worry about his dangerous work?

No, he said, his family was proud.

Did he have kids? I asked. And would he ever let them do this kind of work?

Two daughters, he said, and no, they would definitely not follow in his footsteps.

Why not, I prodded, though I was already mentally ticking off all the risks of his job: handling mercury with his bare hands, cooking the chemical on the same kitchen stove where his family’s supper was prepared, and the constant chance of being buried alive if the mine collapsed from human error or natural disaster.

“Because they’re girls,” he told me matter-of-factly. The belief, he explained, is that mines are female and they hide their golden veins out of jealousy over the presence of another woman.

I realized in that pitch-black, quiet moment deep in the earth of El Salvador that my gender didn’t matter to José. I was there as an observer, asking questions and listening.

I only hope I didn’t scare away his gold. ρ

Catfish biting, meteors crashing 

By Patrik Jonsson, in Atlanta

Before I met Fireball 453, I’d already had space on the brain.

One of the many perks of being an all-purpose reporter is one minute writing about earthly matters and the next gazing upward to document the turmoil of space.

I’d written about “Beetlejuice sparks,” a popular term for the dashing Orionid meteor storm that emanates from Betelgeuse, the red giant marking Orion’s right shoulder. Meanwhile, meteors that week in February had been dashing close from Chelyabinsk, Russia, to San Francisco, to great squawking from a press addressing that logical but overblown Chicken Little concern: Could one fall all the way on my head? [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Betelgeuse as a star on Orion's belt.]

Then, as if on cue, this reporter had to duck. 

On a day off, I was pushing across Georgia’s Lake Oconee in pursuit of winter-schooling blue catfish. 

It was only 3:30 a.m. – the mercury flirting with freezing, the hood of a Gore-Tex anorak pinched around my face, and a 5-watt headlamp shining feebly –  but it was already quite a morning. My frown had a lot to do with the sprigs of ice forming on the gunwale as waves splashed into the canoe. Was this Georgia, or the Baltic? 

Meanwhile, night sky cloudless, pristine and massive – and the guy in the canoe so alone he could just as well have been floating through the mesosphere.

Then ka-zaam! A massive streak from roughly southeast to northwest, the meteor came in over the bill of my baseball cap. It shot so big, bright, and fast that an “oh” had barely squeaked out of me before it flamed out above the tree line. So startled and amazed was I at the size of the thing that later I e-mailed the Monitor’s Pete Spotts, an actual science writer, who suggested I go to the American Meteor Society (AMS) website, where space oglers can record fire-in-the-sky revelations.

On the site, I gave the general info on the fireball – direction, duration, location, no boom but “swift ... dramatic” – and left it at that. Returning to the site recently, I saw the organization had logged it officially as Fireball 453. According to AMS, apparently no one else had seen it, or thought it remarkable enough to record. Yet, in my only actual contribution ever to science, there it was: my name next to that particular atmospheric violator.

I can’t remember how many catfish I caught that February morning, but Fireball 453 remains incredible and indelible: some mundane boulder from the deepest depths of space that flew at perhaps 25,000 miles per hour over all my worlds – writing, fishing, home – in one of those little life highlight reels (you know, baby births and hockey fights) that transcended the moment, and winked in a flash at something altogether heavenly.  

Airing dirty laundry, the foreign correspondent’s way 

By Arthur Bright, in Warsaw, Poland

Smelly clothes. 

It’s one of the big annoyances of long-term travel abroad. You can’t expect to bring a set of clothes for every day. And rain, a spilled dish, or a sudden change in temperature could derail well-laid plans, anyway.

Of course, in most professional circumstances, you can’t just re-wear dirty clothes, at least not if you’re trying to meet local analysts and reporters, hoping to impress them with your professionalism. Odoriferous journalists are not particularly endearing.

These sorts of concerns weighed heavily into my planning for my European travels. But I thought I had them beat.

While the early and late legs of my trip would be in Paris and Berlin hotels – where laundry services were too pricey – I did find a small apartment, with a washing machine, to rent at my journey’s midpoint, Warsaw. Problem solved!

Or so I thought. I did indeed find a shiny new washer. The landlady had even left detergent. But the washer model was called “Intuition,” which was an immediate warning sign. Indeed, the machine’s labeling was ironically cryptic: no words in Polish, English, German, or otherwise – just strange symbols arrayed around knobs and buttons. 

I recognized temperature settings, but what were the numbers in round hundreds – 600, 700, 800 – next to them? The setting for “jeans” seemed fairly clear – the icon was, as one might suspect, a pair of jeans – but what did the broken triangle mean? Or the little flower? And where the heck do you put the detergent?

I turned to the repository of all human knowledge: the Internet. Armed with the counter-Intuition device’s model number, I tracked down the manufacturer’s website to find the manual. Victory! Sort of.

I did indeed have the correct manual, but the only version I could find was in Polish. With my knowledge of Polish confined to about three words, this was not immediately helpful. (Particularly because those three words – lody, delikatesy, and sklep – mean “ice cream,” “supermarket,” and “shop” respectively.)

So once again, to the Internet! This time, I went to Google Translate to put its Polish-to-English logarithms to the test.

This took a lot longer than I expected. With the manual downloaded as a PDF and full of Polish-specific letters – Ł, Ć, and the like – the formatting was awkward at best, and required much squinting at Polish words in the manual, figuring out which letters belonged where, and reassembling that order in Google.

After nearly an hour of close scrutiny and copy and pastes – and thanks to the simplistic syntax and sentence structure common to all manuals, even those in Polish – I was able to decode the washer.

Those rounded hundreds? Washer-drum rotation frequency.

The broken triangle? “Synthetics.”

The flower? “Fabric softener.”

Detergent goes in the receptacle marked “II”; the one marked “I” is apparently for prewash.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I managed to successfully wash my clothes. No risk of having to wear a pierogi-stained shirt to an important interview. Success!

What did I learn from this epic experience abroad? First, the Internet is a surprisingly useful tool for doing laundry 4,000 miles from home on the cheap. Second, never trust a device named “Intuition” to be intuitive.

Manhandled by the Communist Party  

By Peter Ford, in Bejiing

The way I heard the story first it seemed curious but fairly straightforward: An American factory owner planning to move production from his Chinese factory to India had been kidnapped and held hostage by his workers, who were demanding compensation pay.

The factory was only an hour’s drive or so from Beijing so I decided to drive there and find out what was going on. I assumed that the plant would be surrounded by police while officials sought to negotiate with angry workers for owner Chip Starmer’s freedom.

I found nothing of the sort, and instead learned an interesting lesson in the way one-party states work.

Arriving in the misty early morning, I found Specialty Medical Supplies to be an impressively sized two-story facility built from white steel paneling with blue trim, but it looked almost deserted. A man guarding the gate from inside, who appeared to be an employee, said I could come in. The police were nowhere to be seen except for the plainclothes man who approached and took a photo with his smart phone of my official journalist’s accreditation card.

Almost immediately, something seemed wrong. The “occupying workers” were all sitting quietly in the factory bicycle shed and none of them would talk to me, or explain why not. Almost as soon as my interpreter and I had entered the factory grounds we were approached by a man with a buzz cut who refused to say who he was but that he had come to the factory “to serve.”

His main job, it seemed, was to get me to go indoors and drink tea rather than talk to anybody, in between warning the workers not to talk to me. In this he appeared to be following the orders of a sharp-faced middle-aged woman in a dark pantsuit who would say only that she was a union official but refused to answer questions.

If neither of them nor any of the workers would talk to me, I thought I would try to find Mr. Starmer. I got as far as the waiting room to his office before the union official and her buzz-cut minion intercepted me and manhandled me out the door.

The official eventually identified herself as Chu Xiliang, head of the rights protection department of the local district bureau of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a body run by the ruling Communist Party.

That meant, it was clear, that she was in command. Even Starmer, ostensibly in his own factory, was not allowed to address me or other journalists until Ms. Chu had given him permission to do so. That explained, too, why there were no police around; no need for them when the Communist Party union had things under control. And why the workers were silent; no need for them to say or do anything either when their union rep – who might as well have been their boss – was there.

The police could have solved the problem; the local government could have solved the problem; the courts might have solved the problem. But because it concerned wages, it was the union’s business. In the end it made no difference. They are all under the Communist Party’s thumb.  

Sleeplessly seeking a subglacial lake  

By Douglas Fox, in McMurdo Station, Antarctica

The ice drillers spent days and nights crawling like ants over their roaring machine, climbing ladders, carrying wrenches as long as femurs. Their machine occupied a dozen steel cargo containers mounted on skis as large as automobiles, sprawled over a half acre of ice. Wisps of blowing snow slithered over the ground.

The machine’s purpose was seemingly simple: melt snow, heat the water to near-boiling, and pressurize it into a jet that would melt a hole through half a mile of ice. The goal was historic: drill into subglacial Lake Whillans, a body of water that humans have never seen, buried beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, 370 miles from the South Pole. The two dozen scientists I accompanied on this expedition last December and January hoped to find life that has been isolated from the outside world for about a million years. 

“Nothing ever goes very smoothly down here,” said Dar Gibson, an ice driller dressed in battered Carhartt overalls who has spent seven years melting holes in Antarctica. I followed him and six other drillers nonstop as they scurried from one steel container to another, wrenching valves open and closed. “I’m going to send a bunch of water your way,” one called to another on the radio, as he turned a valve to shift hot water from the drill to the snow melter.

My goal as I scribbled notes was to understand what ice drillers hope for – and fear – as they operate this million-pound machine.

The machine suddenly fell silent at 10 p.m. on Jan. 23. The drillers scattered from the control room to find the problem – racing against time to restart their cold-blooded machine before frostbite set in. If flow wasn’t restarted, the water would freeze and clog hoses; the drill head could freeze in the hole – irretrievably stuck thousands of feet below.

The drill was restarted in time. I stayed up day and night to capture fleeting moments that would happen only once during our two months in Antarctica: the first grainy images that a video camera piped back from the lake’s interior; the first glops of chocolate-brown mud raised from the lake bottom. I crashed in my sleeping bag for one to four hours at a time.

Those sleepless days of 24-hour sunlight had smeared into a blur when I returned to San Francisco on Feb. 6. My bag held the essence of two months on the ice: 1,095 pages of notes; 70 hours of recordings; and 2,500 photos – fragments from which a narrative would form. 

My four visits to Antarctica in recent years have also led to more general insights on the challenges of work in the high latitudes, helping lay a foundation for the story on globalization of the poles to appear in the Jan. 13 issue of the Monitor. 

Warned, she went to Merkel’s hometown anyway

By Sara Miller Llana, in Templin, Germany

In August I was sent to Berlin to do a profile of Angela Merkel.  The German chancellor is famously secretive, as is everyone who surrounds her. So in trying to get any sense of what makes her tick, I wanted to go to the small East German town, Templin, where she grew up. 

Everybody – from the United States embassy, to people who worked on her political campaign, to fellow journalists – told me not to bother. They said no one would talk and there was nothing really to see in the medieval town, where Ms. Merkel says she feels most at home. 

The hardest part of a foreign trip is trying to reach all the people you’d love to interview, and talking them into meeting you on your schedule. It’s not always successful, and you have to plan for backup plans and backups to those plans. But as my personal experiences show over and over again, half the time it’s just a matter of showing up.

And that was what was behind my decision to go to Templin in spite of the warnings. It was less than a two-hour train ride from Berlin; I was really curious, so I headed out. And indeed, very few people spoke English, and those who did were not interested in talking to me. I had very low expectations, so I wasn’t discouraged. It was still interesting to see the size of her town, the architecture, the way the people get around on bicycles. 

Around lunchtime I settled on a small, cozy restaurant because it seemed very local. And I was right: Everybody knew everybody, and the staff from the mayor’s office was eating there. That, of course, also meant that no one wanted to talk. But my waitress, realizing I didn’t speak German, told me quite proudly that she spoke English because she has been in English classes for eight years.

So I told her I was working on a story about Angela Merkel and she could practice English with me. We talked for a long while before she told me that Merkel’s mother is her English teacher – almost as if it was an afterthought. And a long while after that, she told me she herself didn’t realize that her teacher was Merkel’s mother until three years after she started her classes. It was such a telling detail about how no-nonsense the town is about being the birthplace of the German chancellor and how private and loyal Merkel’s family is.

It was worth every moment of my time (and it was beautiful).

Unforgettable forgiveness  

By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, in Oakland, Calif.

You know that feeling you have when someone’s story touches your heart and it’s clear there’s a reason you’ve met? Call it cosmic, call it divine, but it goes beyond the surface of what brought you together. That’s how I felt meeting Eric Butler in February and seeing him in action as the restorative justice coordinator at Ralph J. Bunche Academy, where suspensions dropped by more than half because of the school’s alternative approach to discipline. Eric constantly encourages people to forgive themselves and others – while holding them accountable for their actions. He sometimes starts those conversations by telling students about a young woman whose abusive boyfriend murdered her – shot her in front of her children.

That woman was his sister, and what happened next is one of the most profound examples of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever had the privilege to hear – one I recall whenever I have the need to forgive. I couldn’t fit it into my story. But I’ve been sharing it with friends ever since.

Eric told me that his first impulse, despite his work in restorative justice, was to exact revenge. He traveled to New Orleans, his family’s home, and tried in vain to use police department contacts to get to his sister’s killer. Then he got a call from the killer’s mother, asking if she could visit his family. He wanted to carry his revenge out on her, but before he got the chance, she entered his family home, fell on bended knee in front of Eric’s grieving mother, and begged forgiveness. When his mother pulled the woman up and granted that forgiveness with a hug, “the energy in the room shifted,” he said. Eric found himself forgiving the man, too.

Although his sister’s death still hurt, the physical pain that had been eating away at him vanished. To forgive, Eric said, “doesn’t mean ... you have given your power to someone else; it means the opposite, and I can say that from experience.”

Love trumps genocide 

By Jina Moore in Kigali, Rwanda

The day after the last of their formal wedding ceremonies, Damas Dukundane and his wife welcomed me at their new home. They were brought together in sacred union in a church, celebrated with the bells and drums of traditional dancing in a reception hall, and released from their families and into the care of each other in a Rwandan ritual known as gutwikurura.

On her wedding day, Gisele Kayitesi looked like a princess. Now, in her kitchen, she is still glamorous, in a robe, standing over a shiny new stove, adding fresh green peas to bubbling water. The kinetic energy of something new still sparkles on this otherwise unremarkable Monday, the first ordinary day of their lives together.

Weddings all over the world are special, and for outsiders, fewer cultural moments reward like participating in the rituals that join families. But in Rwanda, history has made unlikely families – bonding friends, neighbors, even total strangers. Damas and I long ago cast off the American hierarchy​ of friendship​ – friends, close friends, best friends – for the​ closeness of family.​

. We met by chance in 2005, when I was still just a student. He was the first person I interviewed in another country. I have returned again and again to Rwanda, relying on Damas to help me understand the culture, find the news, interpret my surroundings. 

His wedding earlier in November brought together 400 such family members, some directly related to the bride and groom and some, so many, united by the love and trust from which Damas’s life, like his country, has been rebuilt.

In 1994, Damas’s family was killed in the Rwandan genocide, when extremists from the majority Hutu ethnic group murdered an estimated 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority in just 100 days. Damas survived; after the genocide, an 11-year-old refugee in Burundi, he was interviewed for this newspaper in July 1994.

In the wedding hall, when Damas peeked between the swaying arms of traditional dancers, he saw the faces of the people who hold his story: the German nun who plucked him from the village streets and hid him, with dozens of other children, during the killing; the Rwandan helper, now a professional nurse, who first bathed and fed a dirty, exhausted Damas; the uncle, of sorts – it’s a term used liberally in Rwanda – who found Damas in an orphanage and gave him his first postwar home; the village friend with whom he hatched an ambitious plan to study science miles away at the country’s finest high school, though they had no money or shelter.

And then there was the couple who’d taken the ambitious teenager in, bringing him up alongside their own children. When Damas talks of his family, it is this couple he means. When he speaks of his sister, he means me.

All of this confounds Americans’ rigid visions of who gets to be labeled by which words of love. And it also confounds in Rwanda, where the pain of genocide was supposed to be felt forever, in the absence of trust and support.

So when Damas, his new wife, and I shared a drink in their new home, the ordinariness of the day, and the extraordinariness of this chance for them to love each other, felt a lot like triumph. 

Challah and hummus in parallel universes 

By Christa Case Bryant, in the West Bank and Gaza

On the way into Palestinian-controlled areas, there are big red signs that say: “The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Against The Israeli Law.”

But because I happen to have a thin little navy-blue book with the stamp of the United States government, I get to whiz right by those. And at the Israeli checkpoints heading back into Jerusalem, I almost always pass through without question, unlike those carrying the softer blue or green of Palestinian IDs.

Crisscrossing between these parallel universes is both an opportunity and a challenge. It deeply enriches my reporting, but tests my ability to remain an unimpassioned observer while still showing compassion for the human impact of this conflict.

One night my husband and I were in the synagogue of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, hearing guns clink to the floor as men – many of them soldiers – filed in and rocked back and forth, praying to God that in their eyes is bringing His people back to the land of greater Israel. Afterward, our hosts welcome us at their long Shabbat dinner table, putting out hearty soup and fresh homemade challah.

As the sun set on another day, we were in the middle of the desert, watching our 20-something Palestinian friends stop their Jeeps in the middle of a dry riverbed, face Mecca, and kneel in prayer to Allah. Then we finished our journey on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea just as the alpenglow settled over the Jordanian mountains. Here, they can forget about permits and checkpoints and occupation. They pulled on their hoodies and started marinated chicken sizzling over a fire. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, we ate with our fingers and passed around a can of olives and a tub of hummus.

Both sides love this land. Both sides show extraordinary hospitality, inviting me to weddings and to visit newborn babies. I am grateful to call them my friends. As a journalist striving to understand their lives, who traverses their separate roads and territories and lives, I cannot always speak my mind. But I would so love to bring them together, out from behind the big red signs and the checkpoints, and hear what they have to say to each other – and whether that would change their impression of the “other.”

Because they don’t have that opportunity, really, these days. They are divided by Israel’s separation barrier, and by the fear ingrained over difficult decades. 

There is Ibrahim, who has never met an Israeli who wasn’t holding a gun; and Iyad, who lives 15 minutes from Jerusalem but hasn’t seen it since he was a child because it’s hard to get a permit. On the other side, there’s a rabbi who sat with me as we scrolled through photos on my iPad of my recent trip to Gaza because he was curious about what it looks like eight years after Israel withdrew and banned its citizens from entering.

In a way, being a journalist not only affords me a unique window into the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, it perhaps also enables me, in a small way, to be a window between them. 

White House pool duty: a front-row seat on the presidency, plus special M&M’s

By David T. Cook, in Washington

Being a White House “pool reporter” is 90 percent tedium (including hours sitting in the back seat of a White House van outside Sidwell Friends School while President Obama coaches his daughter Sasha’s basketball team) – and 10 percent excitement (including high-speed rides following Mr. Obama’s limousine in motorcades with sirens blaring).

Serving monthly duty in the pool – a small group of journalists from print, broadcast, and online outlets that follows the president on his travels – provided some of my most memorable professional moments in 2013. The pool is allowed inside the Secret Service’s protective “bubble” and members report what they see to colleagues from other news organizations.

Traveling with Obama on a fundraising trip to New York City May 13 offered a glimpse of the rarefied nature of presidential travel and the high stakes of cultivating big political donors. Flying on Air Force One is a treat. Every inch of the massive military version of the Boeing 747 is waxed and sparkling, there never are any of the flight delays that afflict commercial travelers, the seats are spacious even in the back of the plane where the pool sits, and the first-class meal service includes Air Force One M&M’s that come in blue and white boxes adorned with the presidential seal and signature.

In New York, we were whisked by Marine helicopter into the city where the president boarded his limo. We raced down the West Side Highway en route to movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s five-story West Village townhouse. There, 65 guests – among them search-engine favorites Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel – had paid between $16,200 and $20,000 to attend. We raced up the stairs to hear the president’s remarks about how, after reelection, “you start thinking about history and a longer sweep of time.” Then we were ushered out so he could engage in a private question-and-answer session with the big donors.

Later, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel fundraiser was a relative bargain – the cheapest seats were a mere $7,500. Guests sitting in the back of the room with the pool kept changing seats during the president’s remarks so friends could snap photos of them with Obama in the background.

On the way back to the airport, the views of the city lights from the Marine helicopter were spectacular – with the chopper’s open back door providing a little extra excitement.

Flooded in Boulder: living the news, not just reporting it

By Amanda Paulson, in Boulder, Colo.

When my phone started getting emergency alerts about flash-flood warnings on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, I brushed them off as just another rainy night in an unusually wet week. But when I awoke the next morning, a river was flowing down our street, and we could hear warning sirens from downtown. We were completely cut off by flooding – as was much of Boulder, Colo.

I’ve covered a number of disasters in my years as a reporter – hurricane Katrina, the Rhode Island nightclub fire, the Sago, mine disaster in West Virginia. But this was the first time I wrote about a disaster that was literally in my backyard – and my basement.

I wasn’t quite prepared for how much more overwhelming a story like this can seem without the professional distance a reporter normally has. When I traveled to Lyons, Colo., to see the devastation wreaked by the normally tame St. Vrain River, I was looking at roads and valleys with which I was deeply familiar. One person I interviewed randomly – a musician who invited me in to see his completely destroyed home, from which hardly a single thing could be salvaged, and who impressed me with his Zen-like calm in the face of so much loss – turned out to be a close friend of a friend.

The first few days of the flood, I wasn’t working, which was probably just as well since none of the roads were passable. But I learned far more about shop vacuums, dehumidifiers, and sump pumps than I ever wanted to know. I canvassed our neighborhood to learn who was hit hardest, and reported back to an impressive grass-roots volunteer effort that had already sprung up in our community. My husband and I both spent some time helping neighbors whose homes were still in danger of flooding fill sandbags, and helping others haul mud and water from their submerged basements. We watched one neighbor work tirelessly – free of charge – building barriers using a backhoe he had rented. We went to an impromptu “commiseration party” Saturday night at the home of some friends whose basement and yard had been devastated – hiking in through a field with our two young children – and heard their story of rescuing an older woman stranded in her car at 2 a.m. in the midst of the worst flooding.

By the time I was back at work Monday, Sept. 16, I felt as if I’d been living the floods in a far more intimate way than any other disaster I’d written about. And one of the first stories I wrote, after covering the most pressing news about airlift evacuations and evacuees, was a story about the incredible power of community and people helping each other. To me, as a resident of Boulder and a part of that community, that was the story that felt strongest. I’m not sure how apparent it would have been to a reporter just helicoptering in.

Tiptoeing around sleeping Ethiopian police to get an interview 

By William Davison, in Hailewuha, Ethiopia

After driving 500 miles over two days through the lush highlands of Ethiopia, we arrived in the late afternoon at our first reporting stop of Hailewuha village in the Lower Omo Valley.

The mission was to speak to the Mursi, an ethnic group of around 7,000 people in an area celebrated for its rich human diversity. The Mursi’s traditional cattle-herding ways are threatened by a government plan to build sugar plantations on their territory and move them into permanent settlements.

The story was sensitive. Human rights groups had repeatedly criticized Ethiopia’s government for the schemes. There had also been plenty of negative media coverage.

In the area’s capital of Jinka, our local interpreter insisted we get the all-clear from officials – assisting unauthorized journalists could lead to his family being threatened, he explained.

The suspicion was palpable as we were lectured by the boss of South Omo Zone and his English-speaking advisers about the evils of irresponsible reporting. But finally we were given verbal permission to report in the valley.

It seemed prudent to take a leisurely approach to interviewing in Hailewuha to allow the Mursi to warm to our presence before we started probing. After all, we had the whole evening. Or so we thought.

As we discussed dental care with a crowd of Mursi youth, who had perfect gleaming smiles that put our coffee-stained teeth to shame, a police officer arrived. Wearing a replica Manchester United shirt and brandishing a copy of Ethiopia’s Constitution, he prohibited us from talking to anyone and said we must immediately return to Jinka.

We refused to drive after dusk, and so a compromise was brokered: We would camp outside the police station, a short stroll from the village, with armed guards watching our every move.

We set up a tent and lounged in hammocks while an Ethiopian comedy played on a laptop. As night fell, one policeman was absorbed with the screen while the other dozed. Without deliberating, we took our chance and sneaked off. Tailing us was Micky, my canine companion who travels with me.

Not risking flashlights, we stumbled through long grass and thorn bushes. Having met an elder earlier, we asked villagers to direct us to his home.

Ducking into the mud hut, we sat in front of a bemused interviewee with dictaphones poised. Also present were a goat, a cat, and several cows, one of which began to urinate loudly. Micky snarled at the cat, triggering a cacophony from the mixed herd. The elder disappeared into the night.

It was then we almost lost our nerve. Would the police come with guns blazing if they discovered we’d absconded? Were we risking the elder’s life with our reckless attempt to hear his views?

Panicking, we left the hut, but found our man outside. In broken Amharic, surrounded by a large herd of cows, I asked him about the Mursi’s fate. He spoke for eight minutes in impassioned detail about the injustice the people were facing. 

Sated, we slunk back toward our open-air jail, content with the recordings, yet expecting trouble. But on arrival, we were surprised to find no officials waiting with handcuffs – just two dozing policemen under a glittering tropical sky.

Getting a falafel fix: Journalist confused for a car bomber 

By Tom A. Peter, in Baghdad

When I came back to Iraq this summer for the first time in four years, I was eager to eat some falafel. I’ve always found that the Iraqis do the deep-fried chickpea mash – a street food staple throughout the Middle East – particularly well.

My driver was a devoted carnivore, but he humored my request for yet another falafel stop while we were out reporting. Unlike the last time I visited in 2009 and traveled with armed guards, Baghdad had become safe enough to visit the occasional restaurant.

We parked our car on a busy street less than 40 feet from a falafel stand, and for a moment it felt as if I’d returned to a normal city. The only distress signals came from a nearby fish restaurant where a carp clung to life, still flopping despite being split in half, gutted, and staked in front of an open flame.

As I watched a cook take note of the fish and snap it out of its misery, another vendor ran toward us shouting. After a brief moment of confusion, it became clear that he thought we were in the process of planting a car bomb. Although my driver managed to calm him and convince him otherwise, he appeared unable to relax until we drove away. 

Although violence and tension have decreased since the peak of the war in 2006 and 2007, the concerned vendor was a dark reminder that the war hasn’t ended. A few days into my trip last August, 17 coordinated bombings ripped through the city during rush hour, killing at least 30 people and injuring at least 170 more.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 6,500 people have died in violent attacks like this one, making the country far more dangerous for civilians than Afghanistan, where the United States still has troops engaged in combat.

Unfortunately, most signs indicate that Iraq’s instability is likely to continue for years to come, leaving residents like the frightened vendor to carry a heavy psychological burden.

Trolling for a story on a remote Baltic island

By Isabelle de Pommereau, in Leedri, Estonia

I took a trip to the Baltic region this fall with one assignment in my back pocket, knowing that if I turned over the rocks I’d find stories. This is what I like to do: go to new, off-the-beaten-path areas of the world and meet people.

The big cities – Tallinn, Estonia; and Riga, Latvia – were familiar territory. This time I’d head west, to the very tip of Estonia’s biggest island, a dot in the Baltic Sea across the mouth of the Gulf of Riga.

Some of my friends thought I was a little crazy. There is nothing in Saaremaa. Only thick pines and spruce forest, fragrant juniper bushes, miles of unspoiled coastline.

But an irresistible sense of mystery emanated from the place. During the long Soviet occupation, it had been an off-limits military base. Farmers had moved to collective farms.

I landed at Loona Manor in the middle of a national park, which resident Maarika Toomel had rescued from abandonment and turned into a cozy sort of bed-and-breakfast, and I was the only guest. Maarika loved her island and told me I had to go to the tiny village of Leedri.

With its stone fences, thatched-roof homes, and wooden windmills, Leedri looked frozen in time. Marching ahead there the following morning, my fingers bitten by the cold, dazed by the place’s eerie quietness, I spotted an older woman raking leaves in her front yard.

Our eyes met; we made a connection. Obviously I didn’t fit in there. Maret Künnap beckoned me into her house. I followed.

The smell inside – sweet and sour all at once – won me over: the steam billowing high from gigantic pots, the tens of jars piled atop one another against the wall.

Aside from Estonian, Maret spoke only Russian. She called in a neighbor who spoke English. Over coffee she unveiled her story – that story I knew was waiting for me. It was that of a woman who was an entrepreneur at heart and used the only thing available to her – nature – to fulfill her dreams.

Maret loved the fragrant juniper. Yet she’d cut it whenever she was walking along the beach, to protect the island’s orchids. One day she started making use of it, letting the juniper berries and greens boil, sink in in huge pots – for hours and days. She mixed it with garlic, ginger, hot pepper, balsamic vinegar, rhubarb. And now, three years after the idea first hit her, she’s selling her own brand of juniper sauces and syrup across the entire Baltic region. She made the whole family contribute: Her husband picks up the juniper, her daughter deals with marketing, and her grandson sticks labels on the jars and bottles.

Maret is an example of the Estonian determination to reinvent the country after the fall of communism. Hers is also a bigger story: that of modern and ancient Estonia, where families stick together. The smells and coziness I found there, the friendliness and the translation going on by a neighbor, all suggested a sense of global community and understanding. Stories come in the most unexpected places. If you can open a door, start a conversation.

The pope and commercial idolatry 

By Taylor BarnesRio de Janeiro

On the narrow, muddy street of a favela on a rainy July day, the most unique of vehicles – the popemobile – turgidly made its way through the mob of reporters, singing children, and anxious residents who had assembled shrines of Catholic artifacts and family photos in their homes, in case of a surprise visit. Pope Francis, the first Latin American to lead the Roman Catholic church, was making his first trip back to the continent since assuming the papacy, and no fewer than 3.5 million Catholics from Colombia to Iraq had converged for the World Youth Day here in Rio de Janeiro.

After the road began to clear of robed Catholic officials and frenetic photographers, a new army of visitors began to surge from the alleyways and, seemingly, from the uneven bricks of the favela homes themselves: the troops of souvenir salesmen bearing commemorative key chains, rosaries, prayer books, and T-shirts. They were stealthily hawking their wares – not too loudly, lest an event organizer or police officer protest, but loud enough to get attention. Mine in particular. 

Josenil Gueda da Silva, an unsmiling middle-aged man slogging through the humid streets under the weight of mugs and key chains, had little to say when I asked him what he thought of Pope Francis’s visit. “I came to do business,” he said. He told me he’d driven from Recife in Brazil’s northeast – some 1,400 miles – with 600 mugs ($5 each) and 1,000 key chains ($1.50), was staying free with a friend near Rio, and planned to make a tidy profit off the pope.

I bought a plastic coffee cup from him that had a photo of the pope inserted into it. I made the mistake of actually using it, which made its ink run and caused the paper to tear. That’s when I realized it was meant to be just a collectible.  

Commercial compatriots of Mr. da Silva’s were darting around the Copacabana beach Catholic mass later in the day, trying to avoid guards in their competition with the official store in a tent with the sign: “The faithful buy official.” Judging from the flow of business, the legions of faithful were about equal to the commercially unfaithful. 

One vendor quietly and quickly sold calendars with pictures of Brazil’s “charismatic” singing priests, whose evangelical style and stardom has long been a problem for the more tame Vatican. He told massgoers interested in his goods to meet him at a certain intersection outside the event if they wanted to buy more.

Jesuit Pope Francis has presented himself as a people’s pope with a sincere heart for social justice and who is open to new views on what is seen as an ideologically rigid faith. I wondered what he would make of such commercialism and tawdry idolatry.

I think he actually would approve. Not of the official Warhol-style four-color photo of him on T-shirts, but of devious da Silva and his colleagues and the rowdy Catholics themselves who thronged him here and fit like a round peg in a square hole and make the church nowadays a far less simple but much more interesting place.

Maggie Thatcher’s death set parents abuzz at the playground

By Ian Evans, in London

It was a Monday and I was in a park with my children, sitting on a bench as they played on the swings and slides. Most parents can picture the school holiday scene – half an eye on the kids while looking around and intermittently checking the smart phone.

And then a text message bleeped from my wife: “Thatcher’s died.” I didn’t even know the former British prime minister was seriously ill, nor had anyone else it seemed. Within minutes, I could see other people pressing and scrolling their handsets, showing the screens to friends, and discussing the content.

I sensed a buzz about the park, people recognizing a moment of history in the making. Most of the parents were about my age, mid-40s, and had lived through the Margaret Thatcher era and her immediate legacy, so her death was poignant.

I had qualified as a reporter the year she stood down in 1990, but my family’s history – steeped in the coal mines and steelworks of South Wales – and my father’s job as a trade unionist gave me an industrial-scale interest in “Thatcherism.” Indeed my dad’s steel union had been one of the first to strike during her premiership, a national stoppage in 1980 that lasted 14 weeks.

The battle lines were drawn between the once powerful trade union movement and consensus-style governance, and the more business-friendly, entrepreneurial brand of Ms. Thatcher’s conservatism with emphasis on the individual. And the rest, as they say, was history.

Britain’s first female prime minister curbed the power of labor, encouraged share ownership, sold off state-owned industries, fought the Falklands War, and helped defeat communism alongside Ronald Reagan. She allowed US planes to fly from Britain to bomb Libya, OK’d cruise missiles, and backed anti-gay legislation. The list now seems endless.

But her 11 years in power between 1979 and 1990 were hugely divisive, the ultimate “Marmite” politician – you either loved her or hated her ... but you couldn’t ignore her.

I was too young to report on her days in power, but in writing about her death I witnessed the reopening of old scars with genuine bitterness and anger about her policies. Students who weren’t even born when she was in power danced in the streets; old mining towns wrecked by pit closures celebrated; left-leaning intellectuals chastised her legacy.

One element I did find fascinating about Thatcher was the lack of women in her cabinets, so I wrote about it for the Monitor. In truth, I could have picked a multitude of subjects from her reign – she once used the royal “we” when speaking to the press about becoming a grandmother.

Imposing, intransigent, strong-willed, pig-headed, ideological, determined, female, business-friendly – she was all these and more, but nearly always box office. While her semi-state funeral was grand, it was largely trouble-free, unlike her time in power.

Whatever your view of her, I don’t think there’ll be another British politician in my lifetime who engenders such divisive passion.. Despite her very many opponents, Thatcher won three elections and banished old-style Labour Party socialism – and got middle-aged parents abuzz in a public park on an otherwise uneventful Monday morning in the spring.

Pope resigns, and Rome reporter nearly chokes on his pasta 

By Nick Squires, in Rome 

It was shaping up to be a regular day in Rome. I had done my daily duty of wading through seven or eight floridly written Italian newspapers, made a few calls, and sent off some story ideas by e-mail to foreign-desk editors.

I was just sitting down to a plate of pasta in the bar of the foreign press club, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain, when an announcement flashed on the TV screen – “Pope Benedict XVI resigns.”

I nearly choked on my spaghetti alle vongole. Surely there was some mistake? Popes simply don’t resign – it’s a job for life.

I dashed over to a bank of antiquated newswire machines to check what the Italian news agencies were reporting.

They confirmed the breaking news I’d seen on TV – Pope Benedict had made the surprising announcement during an obscure, quiet audience with a group of cardinals at the Vatican.

The bolt from the blue had me and other correspondents in Rome reaching for their histories of the Vatican – it turned out that the last time a pope had resigned was in 1415, when Pope Gregory XII stepped down at a time when there were three claimants to the papacy.

It was Feb. 11, and the start of a frenetic few weeks during which the eyes of the world focused on the Vatican.

I attended endless press conferences given by Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s genial spokesman, and spent the time in between interviewing priests, cardinals, and the legions of Vatican experts who descended on Rome from around the world.

I was in St. Peter’s Square to watch Pope Benedict leave the Vatican for the last time, boarding a white helicopter that swept low over the sunlit terra cotta rooftops of Rome before heading to Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence where he spent the first few weeks of his retirement.

Then came the big day – the start of the conclave, in which 115 cardinals were locked inside the Sistine Chapel to choose Pope Benedict’s successor.

After each round of voting their ballot papers were burned, and we correspondents would step out into cobbled St. Peter’s Square to see whether the smoke coming from the chimney attached to the roof of the Sistine Chapel was black, meaning a majority decision had not yet been reached, or white, meaning “habemus papam” – We have a pope.

On the evening of the second day of voting, I was just about to grab my bicycle and go home when a shout went up in the Vatican press room – the smoke was white.

We rushed out into the March evening with rain pouring, pushing our way through the crowds that were already forming in St. Peter’s Square, my notebook becoming soggier by the minute as I interviewed American tourists, Ghanaian nuns, and Irish priests. The world had a new pope – we just didn’t know who he was.

An hour later, a figure clad in white stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and a Vatican aide announced that the new pontiff was Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

“Jorge who?” was my bewildered response.

Frantic research and interviewing Vatican experts revealed exactly who he was, this Argentine archbishop who described himself that night as coming “from the end of the Earth.”

He seemed intriguing – he had lived in a modest apartment in Buenos Aires, went to work on the bus, had a clear distaste for opulence and had just become not only the first Jesuit pope but the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years.

Exactly how intriguing, none of us could have guessed that stormy night. But we’ve been writing about him ever since.

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