Friday, December 3, 2010

Bahrain Dec 3

Ok so YES we did have lunch at the palace of the King of Bahrain today. It was something...all the marble, gowned sheikhs and colossal chandeliers you could hope for. The food was also fantastic, which was a bonus.

We weren't eating with the king, mind you. Clinton came to pay her respects and have lunch, and (as I guess is the practice at any royal palace) we in the retinue were shown to a separate room where they laid on the feast. Lots of lamb, chicken tikka, rice, stuffed grape leaves...the whole kebab. I didn't really get to snooop around the palace (see entrance above) but did pay a visit to the bathroom and was gratified to discover what at least looked like gold-plated fixtures.

Otherwise it's been a pretty exhausting day. We followed Clinton to a meeting with the Bahrain foreign minister in the morning which was followed by a press conference. She said a few things about Iran and about the Middle East peace process, so that was two stories going right there.

Then the palace, then on to the U.S. Embassy for the traditional meet-and-greet, then to the Bahrain museum for another one of her "townterviews". We were all dragging at this point and maybe she was too because she said, in response to a question, that being secretary of state would be her last public job.

We're now at the Ritz, waiting for the "Manama Dialogue" -- a security conference. Everyone is expecting her to say something more about Iran, but with the Geneva talks looming next week she may not want to go too far. We'll see..she could surprise us yet.

After that, 17 hours back to Andrews AFB. But at least I had lunch at a king's.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan, Dec 2

This was sort of a wild day. We woke up in Astana to gusty freezing winds off the steppe..the winds actually went all night, rattling the windows of the hotel. There was an added attraction in the form of a drunk night-time singer in one of the rooms down the hall...mournful Russian songs, punctuated by yells and laughs. I think he was alone. Altogether it was a little spooky, which is strange for such a futuristic city.

We convoyed back out the airport and got on the plane to Kyrgyzstan. The two places are very different: where Kazakhstan is flat, cold and looks at least potentially rich, Kyrgyzstan is flush up against the foothills of the Himalayas, more temperate, and looks poor. I actually liked Bishkek's looks a lot better than I did's a small, grey city but most of the streets are lined with birch trees and it seemed to have some kind of street life going on.

Clinton did a press conference with the president, one of the few women heads of state in the world, and then we rushed off for another of her "townterviews" at a local university. The students all spoke and asked questions in English and the questions were good -- ranging from how Kyrgyzstan should navigate its future as a democratic countries surrounded by authoritarian neighbors, to what the U.S. plan is for dealing with North Korea. Clinton excels at these events, and I think she enjoys them..she usually stays late to answer as many questions as she can.

After that it was off to the Manas air base -- the real reason the U.S. cares about Kyrgyzstan, because its the main transit hub for troops into Afghanistan. The U.S. seems to have perusaded the new Kyrgyz government to keep allowing U.S. use of the base (which is basically one side of the main airport). It was a slice of military America: pre-fab buildings, soldiers in uniform etc. etc. Clinton gave a brief speech thanking them, and her inner politician came to the fore yet again. You can see how she would (or maybe still might one day be) president.

Then it was back to the airport and an hour flight to Uzbekistan. This is a more problematic stop. Uzbekistan also helps out the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, but its president is a ruthless autocrat who excuses a lot of his repression as a necessary tactic to battle Islamic extremism. Clinton has to walk a fine line here because it looks pretty bad, on the surface, for her to be sitting down with a thug like this. But they've got their rationale down pat: that these visits are a useful chance to personally press for human rights reform. It sounds persuasive when she says it, but you have to wonder. She had no public events with journalists here, so while the foreign press was told about the U.S. message on human rights, we have no way of knowing it it reached anybody in Uzbekistan...

That said, Tashkent looked sort of cool. Lots of big, Soviet style buildings, but lots of lights. The Foreign Ministry guest house, where we waited for Clinton to finish her meeting with the president, is a fantastic Central Asian confection from the times of Imperial Russa. It was apparently once a Romanov hunting lodge, and it is decorated with fantastic traditional murals. They put out a buffet of local pasteries which were fantastic, and (we thought) gave us each a figurine of a traditional Uzbek figure. About half an hour later someone came back and said there had been a mistake, those figurines were NOT in fact gifts, so we had to give them all back....weird.

From here its 5 hours to Bahrain, where we are supposed to get in at about 2 in the morning.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kazakhstan, Nov30-Dec 1

Pretty lousy picture of Astana I'm afraid, but this is about all I've seen of it. We arrived late last night from Washington after a 17-hour flight, and emerged into a pretty frigid winter night on the Kazakh steppe.

The country -- dripping with oil profits, and not many people -- is on a Chinese-style building spree, and driving into the new capital (only 10 years old at this point) has a sort of "arriving in Las Vegas" feel to it: lots of big, oddly shaped towers, lots of neon, and LOTS of Christmas decorations. Lit Christmas trees, Santa statues, blinking snowflakes -- they're everywhere, and it all feels a little weird for a Muslim country.

Astana itself doesn't seem to have much going for it besides its questionable architecture. A lot of the things mentioned on the tourist map aren't even built yet, and the brutal climate (40 degrees below zero Celsius in the winter, 40 degrees above Celsius in the summer) makes it look like "street life" is never going to one of Astana's strong suits.

We're here for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit and it looks like most of the city's hotels are full of official delegations. We've landed at the "Akku Hotel", which from the outside looks like the Federal Reserve (all Greek columns and impressive staircase) and on the inside is heated to about 100 degrees.

But after 17 hours on a plane, any bed, is welcome and I managed to sleep pretty well after two bowls of lentil soup in the restaurant, where waiters and hangers-on outnumbered the paying guests by about five to one.

We spent the day at the OSCE summit site -- another brand new, weirdly-shaped building -- and after what seemed like an eternity finally made it back to the hotel for what looks like another dinner of lentil soup.

The story has been sort of fun, because Clinton has had to spend a lot of time placating foreign leaders about the Wikileaks release of embassy cables. Nobody seems seriously put out by them -- I guess all officials at that level of government would understand that there are some things you just don't want to make public.

Tomorrow it is on to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and then Bahrain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Brussels Oct 14

Back to Brussels for a NATO meeting. We got in last night and went out -- late, as it turns out -- to find something to eat. More difficult than it sounds.

Brussels feels a lot like DC. A city but not really a city, with lots of officialdom and an early bedtime. We went to meet some of the press crew who are in town with Secretary of Defense Gates, but by the time we found them the kitchen at their restaurant had closed. So we walked around one of the main tourist areas of town, near the fishmarket, looking for something open -- finally found one place that was essentially traditional Belgian food cooked by Greeks and served to Italians. I had the mussels and they were fantastic -- with chopped onions and white wine sauce.

Finding a cab back to the hotel at 11:30 was also pretty difficult, but we finally snagged one, went back, and went straight to bed.

Today Clinton has a NATO ministerial. We started the day at the new EU headquarters (see above). The building is new but seems a little dysfunctional -- a little like the EU itself. But they've obviously spent a lot of money and want to be taken seriously. I'm not sure if the Clinton crew does that yet, but they are spending a lot of time with Euro-officials this time around.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Belgrade-Kosovo Oct 12-13

Hillary Clinton stopped on Bill Clinton Boulevard on Wednesday to view one of Kosovo's main attractions: the Bill Clinton Statue.

Clinton, on her first visit to Kosovo as secretary of state, received a rapturous welcome from the crowd waving U.S. flags and cheering on the Clinton Brand, which many Kosovars see as key to their country's independence.

Clinton stopped and looked up at Bill -- now 12 feet high and a shimmering gold -- and expressed her satisfaction with the likeness.

She then plunged into the crowd, or at least as far as security would allow, pressing the flesh campaign-style and expressing her delight at being back in Kosovo as an independent country.

"I'm so glad to be back after 10 years, it's wonderful," Clinton said as reporters and officials scrambled around, the careful choreography of the motorcade thrown topy-turvy by the unscheduled stop.

Clinton appeared about to leave, but then a local store caught her eye: "Hillary", a women's wear boutique about half a block from the statue. The crowd followed Clinton into the small shop where she took a quick look at the wares, smiled and left -- no sale.

Clinton's stop in Kosovo comes at the tail end of a three day trip through the Balkans that has seen her repeatedly urge the region's fractious leaders to put their ethnic animosities behind them and start seriously working to catch up to Europe.

She spent the night in Belgrade -- which was bombed by NATO in 1999 when Bill Clinton was president as the western military alliance sought to stop Serbia's oppressive policies in the renegade province.

Perhaps predictably, there were no welcoming crowds in the Serbian capital, where security appeared to have cleared the streets and kept watchful vigil, one by one, on the long road out to the airport as she left.

We're sitting in the Kosovo parliament building now, waiting for a press conference of Hillary and the PM. After that we are supposed to go to a famous Kosovo Serbian orthodox monastery, and then another "townterview" with local students before heading off to Belgium.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sarajevo, Oct 10-11 2010

We arrived in Sarajevo last night -- long flight from D.C., punctuated by breakfast (scrambled eggs and sausage) and dinner (cheeseburgers and fries...and baked beans). Typical of the weird, homestyle salt-heavy diet the plane crew seems to specialize in.

We arrived at around midnight local time and were taken straight to the hotel. Hard to see anything, except as we were whizzing past a bridge the driver pointed and said "That's where World War One started". Hats off to remember the Archduke.

The hotel was odd -- a reconfigured "boutique" hotel with all sorts of odd numbered rooms popping up on incorrectly numbered floors, stairs and elevators that didn't connect, Bosnian guards sleeping in arm chairs....we met at the bar for a beer and went to bed.

Except that, of course, it was only 6 p.m. so it hard to get to sleep, especially since the security command post (complete with beeping and buzzing walkie talkies and lots of loud conversation) was directly beneath my window. I closed my eyes for a while and then woke up -- the muzzein from the local mosque was sounding. Morning.

Clinton spent the morning at a "town hall" style meeting with Bosnian students, held in an old neoclassical theater that had run right through the war (apparently on the worst days the shows were presented by candlelight). The students were a mixed group of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and most seemed pretty receptive to Clinton's message about the necessity of putting ethnic enmities aside and getting on with building the country. Unfortunately everyone except the TV crew missed Clinton on an unscheduled walk down "Marshall Tito Street" just before the town hall -- she was cheered and clapped by onlookers, who remember the Clinton Intercession that effectively pushed the war to its close.

Sarajevo looked like it had potential, although the signs of war are still around in pockmarked buildings and "Sarajevo Roses" -- wherever a shell hit and killed someone in the city, they have filled the resulting crater with red epoxy -- resulting in a rose like sculpture on the street. There are also very few mature trees in the city, as they were all chopped down for firewood during the worst of the siege.

After the town hall and a meeting with Bosnia's three (!) presidents -- one for each nationality -- Clinton went to to cut the ribbon on the new U.S. embassy in downtown Sarajevo, named after a U.S. diplomat who was killed there. She had a few more meetings, we wandered around the embassy compound, and then back to the plane and on to Belgrade.

Friday, September 24, 2010

UNGA Sept 19-24

This week we've been at the U.N. General Assembly -- better known as "Ungah". This is THE big event for a certain kind of diplomatic process. Lots of committees, lots of resolutions, and lots and lots of meetings.

Clinton came up on Sunday for a special session on the Pakistan floods -- they've raised about $1 billion so far, but people say it will take $40 billion to pull Pakistan back to where it was before the disaster. Hard to imagine.

Since then she's held a bunch of "bilats" with foreign ministers. The press coverage for these is minimal -- limited to a joint photo at the opening -- but we still try to be there on the off chance Clinton will say something. This involves arriving an hour early for security screening at the Waldorf. And then waiting in a small holding room. When they are about ready the press handlers take us up in a freight elevator and the more waiting in the freight loading bay, next to the half full garbage bin and the tower of dirty towels. Finally they hustle us in behind the photographers, who get about five seconds to take their pictures. Clinton and the visitor might make a little bit of small talk, but that's it..then we get hustled out.

Then it is back into the freight elevator, switch to a regular elevator at a lower floor, and then back down the lobby. The Waldorf lobby is actually a pretty interesting place to hang out during UNGA. Today I saw both Bob Geldof and Newt Gingrich, and there are invariably large collections of Africans wearing fantastic outfits. And always and everywhere security -- stern faced young men and woman in cheap suits and earpieces. You can try to tell which country they are with by their lapel pins.

I haven't spent much time at the United Nations headquarters this time around. It is under construction, and the famous dome is covered in what looks like saran wrap. They've moved most of the meetings into a temporary building -- a big cheap box that the locals refer to as Walmart.

But even with the scaffolding and the construction, the view down the East River is pretty spectacular -- complete with little police motorboats mounted with what look like machine guns.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hanoi July 22-23

We left Seoul in the morning and flew four hours to Hanoi, where Clinton was attending an ASEAN meeting.

I haven't been here for at least 10 years, and am glad to see that it hasn't been totally changed the way, say, Beijing has. It looks bigger, and more prosperous, but they still have the lovely French Colonial buildings. And it seems like a city with a healthy street life -- people hanging out at makeshift curbside cafes, riding on motorbikes with their babies on their backs, etc.

The meeting itself has been pretty dull. We went to see Clinton sign a new agreement with Vietnam on PEPFAR AIDS funding, at a temple that takes care of HIV-positive children. And since then we've been pretty much locked up in the main convention center (a pretty impressive building with a great, wave-patterned roof) while all the meetings take place behind closed doors.

We went out as a group last night for dinner -- fantastic food. Delicious grapefruit salad (hard to describe), good fish, pork ribs. The picture is of the appetizer plate, fashioned into a kind of bird. It was all about presentation with everything coming in gourds and melon rinds that were elaborately carved.

It's a little frustrating to be stuck here and unable to go out and really look around Hanoi again. But it makes me want to come back (maybe go to a cooking school for a while!), so that is something for the future.

Tonight we head back -- 22 hours -- via military bases in Japan and Alaska, until get back to DC at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. I'm ready.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seoul-DMZ July 21

We left Kabul in the evening, moving again by Chinook helicopter from the "secure area" near the U.S. Embassy to the main Kabul airport. It was beautiful.

We got the sense they were a little nervous about the departure. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plane had had to divert the night before because of rocket fire around the airport -- making you think that perhaps it was Taliban practice shots for Clinton.

They shut all the windows and the plane barreled out of there quickly..a fast, steep jump up to get out of range of any missiles. Once we were high enough, you could look down and see Afghanistan in the waning light of day. It looked gorgeous but tough, little towns clustered in greenbelts near rivers, and otherwise just sharp peaks and desert. Must be a hellish place to be a soldier.

We flew to New Delhi and refueled...they let us out on the tarmac so stretch our legs and get a few lungfuls of hot, fume-filled air ... and then on another six hours to Seoul, where we arrived at about 7 a.m.

I had no idea what to expect of Seoul but it looked pretty nice. Lots of cookie-cutter apartment blocks, but also lots of hills and green space. The Han River flows through the middle of it and the hills are also covered with housing, so it had a sort of Mediterranean feel (if that can be imagined in a Korean context, and in a place which has brutal winters).

After a quick shower at the hotel we headed for the DMZ. It's only about 45 minutes north of the city -- you drive along a highway which eventually winds along beside another big river. After a while you are aware of military pillboxes and barbed wire lining the river bank..the other side is now North Korea. Hard to make out much expect there weren't many buildings. But there were gigantic power lines.

The DMZ itself is even weirder. You go through a couple of checkpoints, and then into a sort of wilderness. There is only one South Korean "village" in the zone, and apparently they are pretty lucky -- they don't pay national taxes, don't have to send their sons to mandatory military conscription. And they are some of the richest farmers in South Korea, specializing in "organic" produce with no pesticides (not allowed in the zone).

We drove up to the "Freedom House", which is the big U.N./South Korean centerpiece at Panmunjom. It faces a similar North Korean edifice (no idea what that one is called) and there are a series of small huts in between. The U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand watching across the line, while North Korean soldiers stand with binoculars looking back. We went into one of the huts, which is the room where the two sides hold discussions. You can actually go and "stand" in North Korea by walking across the room. When the South Koreans are in there, they lock the door leading to the North.

The picture shows a guard standing in front of the door. The whole throwback feel of the place is summed up in this guy, with the retro shades (so they don't show "emotion" to the North Koreans, we were told) and the clenched-fist pose, which we were told was called the "ROK-ready stance" (ROK being Republic of Korea).

When Clinton and Gates showed up they were given a quick tour and then went into the same hut. As they went in, a small detachment of North Korean soldiers came jogging out and took up position outside the building, looking into the windows....a great shot for photographers.

We went back to Seoul and later they had a joint press conference where they announced new sanctions against the North, trying to cut off the flow of both dollars and "luxury goods" to the leadership.

Had dinner with a friend and then slept hard.

Leaving Kabul July 20

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kabul July 19-20

We arrived in Kabul last night from Islamabad -- another jerky, screw-drivey landing that I guess is "defensive flying" against possible rocket attack.

We were unloaded from Clinton's plane and immediately put on military Chinook helicopters for a five minute flight to the Embassy. Loud, and you couldn't see much, but sort of thrilling to look out the open back of the helicopter at the lights (surprisingly bright) of Kabul below.

We were again billeted at the U.S. Embassy. Accomodations were a bit better than in Islamabad. This is another big new American installation, complete with Holiday Inn-style apartment dorms. The cafeteria is pretty bare bones (fried chicken nuggets) but did the job.

Slept like a rock.

Up early this morning to see Clinton meet a selection of Afghan women, who voiced fears that their rights be sacrificed if Karzai reaches some sort of political agreement with the Taliban. You can see why they'd be scared. Clinton assured them they weren't going to be abandoned ... I wonder how much heart they took.

The conference itself was a pretty scipted affair. They had us in a media center (see photo) across the street, where everyone was spread out haphazardly amid couches and fold out chairs. The whole thing was piped in via television, so yet again we were almost there but not really there. The Kabul bureau was doing all the heavy lifting and all I had to do was provide a few briefs on Clinton's speech and her promises to the Afghan women.

Back into a van convoy to the Embassy, where we're waiting for Clinton to get back and then are supposed to get a few minutes with her. Can't see anything of Kabul behind the blast walls..just like Baghdad. Strange to think of how these cities have been transformed by the U.S. military presence. Concrete suppliers must make a fortune.

We're due out in a couple of hours and then fly overnight to Seoul. Everybody is kind of punchy at this point but it has been interesting to see the little bits of Kabul that we did see. The Afghans seem a pretty friendly bunch...but I guess we're not exactly dealing with the Taliban here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Islamabad July 18-19

One thing I can tell you about Islamabad in the summer -- pretty much the only thing I can tell you about Islamabad in the summer -- is that it is ferociously hot.

It must have been 120 degrees when we landed on Sunday after the overnight flight from Washington. Its a long haul and it feels like it, because you arrive in the morning and then have a whole day of work ahead of you.

In the heat.

Details of Clinton's trip were kept secret ahead of her arrival because of security fears. Pakistan is what they call a "Critical Threat Environment". It feels threatening. The airport access highway is lined with soldiers carrying guns, all facing out as though scanning the underbrush for attackers. The motorcade is shadowed by a Pakistani military helicopter, and the last vehicle is army truck bristling with more military gunmen. The city is hobbled by checking points, all of which feel on edge.

In the blistering heat and bogged by jet lag, it all feels pretty surreal. Especially when you finally arrive at the typically ugly U.S. embassy and find a sort of half-hearted attempt at a golf club. Its actually not bad, but I couldn't imagine working/living there. They set us up in a "media center" which is actually a rec room next the pool. The pool itself is warm as blood and only the hardiest go in for recreational swimming.

They've also got a 'club house' with an ok restaurant and even a bar upstairs, staffed by Pakistanis. The walls are plastered with warning signs about drinking too much, which must be an occupational hazard for some of the people there.

We had a couple of briefings and then were shown to the Pods...(see picture above). Because the embassy has so many visitors (thanks to the War on Terror/Extremism), it has been overwhelmed by congressional delegations, fact finding missions, and of course visitors like Hillary. They all have to stay at the embassy because the hotels outside the perimeter are seen as too risky. So the solution is the Pod...a reconfigured cargo container that has been refitted as a bare bones hotel double. Its not bad, given the situation. They are airconditioned -- freezing in fact -- and have plumbing with shower, toilet etc. There aren't any windows but I guess that doesn't really matter in Islamabad.

We had a few more briefings and then waited around for Clinton's meeting with the Prime Minister, which yielded a little bit o f news in the announcement that Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a long-awaited border trade deal. The U.S. had been pushing for this in hopes that it would both give Afghanistan more export routes and tie the two countries together as they face off against the Taliban. A small step forward, but the U.S. is ready to trumpet even the smallest at this point.

In the evening the Pakistani ambassador and Richard Holbrooke came by and had a pretty funny joint briefing off the record. Clearly they like each other but perhaps don't fully trust each other, which is a pretty good mirror of the governments they represent.

Today was killer. Up early, into the motorcade, and then a lot of waiting and more transfers. Clinton did a two hour "strategic dialogue" with the Pakistanis, then held a press conference, then went for a "town hall meeting" with about 200 people, then did an hour media round table with journalists...exhausting just to watch, let alone to actually do. Then it was back into the motorcade and we headed to the airport while she diverted to the military GHQ for a one-on-one with General Kayani, who most suspect calls the real shots in Pakistan.

We spent a couple of hours at the airport "VIP" waiting room, unairconditioned. Her meeting went well, or at least there was lots of jet lag nodding off and walking around in the heat. I'm including a picture because it is typical of a lot of the time one spends on this beat. Just waiting in a waiting room.

Once she arrived, we were off to Kabul. I'll write about that tomorrow.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Toronto G20 Summit June 24-28

First trip to Toronto, which reminds me of somewhere else except I can't think where that is.

Am up here for the G20 summit -- not with Hillary this time, but to handle "political" news out of what is supposed to be primarily an economic summit. We're staying at the Hilton downtown, which is nice -- except the security clampdown has made the place into a ghost town. We shuttle to the "Direct Energy Center", the cavernous convention hall where the media center is, in vans driven by nice guys from Minnesota who work for some division of Thomsonreuters I've never heard of.

We were given a security briefing at the start of the thing, which included advice not to sit in front of windows at restaurants because rocks might get hurled at you. But despite a bit of protest action ("protesters emerging from sewers"!) there doesn't seem to have been too much to be afraid of. I wrote a quick piece on this, talking about the decline of mass protest at these kind of summits. It will probably turn out to be wrong but here it is.

Otherwise it has been a lot of waiting in the Reuters room at the press center, tying stuff together from other reporters. The G8 ended up saying some stuff about North Korea but none of it was terribly exciting.

The Canadians have done a pretty good job I think. The picture is the infamous "Fake Lake" that they installed in the press center at huge cost. It is supposed to transport you to "Cottage Country" north of Toronto, but people just go stare at it and then walk away...

They are feeding us pretty well. It must be a huge operation to feed this many journalists, but they've managed lunch and dinner every day. Impressive!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Barbados June 10

The last day of the trip. It's been pretty good. A little bit of news with the Iran sanctions, a lot of travel. Woke up this morning and had a swim -- lovely live warm water, gentle waves, white sand. Perfect Caribbean beach. Too bad the Hilton where we are staying is such a huge concrete monster.

Followed Clinton to the George Washington House, where Washington stayed in 1751 on his only overseas trip. Its a small place, and lots of people were jammed in, but she said the right things.

This afternoon she meets Caribbean leaders to talk about security cooperation, a growing issue as Mexico's anti-drug crackdown pushes smugglers to find alternate routes in the region. Not huge news but a good excuse to be in Barbados, if only for a few hours.

Tonight it's home, with a decent arrival time (we hope) of about 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bogota June 9

Thought I'd post up this picture from Bogota...

We had a swervy, sick-making ride in the motorcade, up and down hills and roaring around corners -- it's a challenge to write on your laptop when moving so fast in a very crowded van!

Once we got to the presidential office it calmed down tho -- this is the view from one of the terraces

Lima-Quito-Bogota June 8-9

Long day, slowed a little in the aftermath of the pisco sour celebration in Lima the night before! We had a good time though -- this is a small group of journalists, only 6 -- so we are able to organize ourselves a bit better.

We had pisco sours on the veranda of a restaurant on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific -- gray, overcast, but surfers braving the big rollers coming in. Later we went to a place on the beach where they dished up fantastic ceviche. A couple of the gov't guys came with us, and as always it is easier to get a real picture of what is going on when people are relaxed and off the record.

On Tuesday we left for Quito. The trip was interesting because Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa has been a part of the Hugo Chavez gang, and critical of the U.S. Clinton's trip was clearly aimed at driving the beginnnings of a wedge between the Latin Lefties, and perhaps she was able to work her magic. They certainly came out looking very friendly, and he at least appeared mollified on the issue of U.S. troops using Colombian bases, which has been a big sticking point.

Quito itself looked great -- spread out on steep mountainsides, lots of windy, climbing alleyways, old architecture. Definitely looks worth a return trip. After a quick stop at the ambassador's house to file our stories, we went back to the airport and on to Bogota. Today's schedule looks pretty light and news-free. Our best hope of getting something might be reaction to the U.N. Security Council vote on Iran sanctions, but that's not really our story down here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lima/Organization of American States June 7

We arrived in Lima last night after a rough flight from DC -- there were tornado warnings around Andrews Airforce Base, and everyone in the "special loading area" was looking nervously at the huge thunderheads outside.

As it was, we got off after only about an hour delay. The alarming bits of the flight came later -- it was pretty choppy all the way, and about five hours in we hit some real turbulence: quick climbs, sudden drops, and a heart-stopping lurch or two to the left and right. People were definitely clutching the arms of their seats, but on the whole I don't think ahir terror hits very hard on Clinton's plane. There's an assumption (maybe ill-advised) that the crew is on top of its game, and the plane must be loaded with special radar etc...right?

Anyway we got in around midnight, and drove straight to the hotel. Lima is huge...I didn't really have any impression of it before, but it is massive. The hotel looks out over a series of cliffs and the Pacific, but the city itself stretches back in a hodgepodge of highways and featureless blocks of flats. This morning Clinton went to the Presidential Palace to meet President Garcia. We were parked in the "Gold Room", seen in the picture above. Its wonderfully ornate, and apparently sits atop ancient Inca ruins.

Clinton and Garcia came out briefly after their meeting, but didn't take any questions, and we were whisked all the way across town to the OAS General Assembly meeting, which is in a brutalist concrete museum.

Clinton is due to speak in a bit -- but we aren't expecting much news. It doesn't sound as though they are going to really grapple with the main issue dividing the United States and Latin America at the moment -- the readmission of Honduras after its coup last year --

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

United Nations March 31

We arrived in New York last night from Ottawa -- howling storm at La Guardia -- and convoyed into Manhattan with a few of Clinton's people. In New York, she goes home to Chappaqua and everybody else stays at the Waldorf.

Not much to say about the hotel -- fancy lobby, outdated rooms, and don't even think about ordering any food or drink, all of it is insanely expensive. It goes to show how long places/companies can trade on a well-known brand.

The point of the New York trip was a U.N. donors conference for Haitian earthquake relief. It is the kind of set-piece story that is pretty much written even before it starts. They all gather, talk a lot, pony up the money, and its over. They topped $5 billion this time, although (of course) it isn't really clear how much of this is new money, or just recounting old contributions, or debt relief, or whatever. The point was they wanted to make a statement and they did.

We had the final press conference in one of the conference rooms at UN headquarters. It is undergoing renovation, but the place really is always going to be a relic of the 60's...made for and equipped with technology that is so outdated it looks like something from a movie. That's my pin-striped knee underneath the desk, with the voting buttons.....I didn't push them.

I did get to ask the question tho -- in these events, questions are limited so the different groups (U.S. reporters, international reporters etc) have to come up withs someone to as the one question they are going to get. I did one on Haiti, just to be polite, and then asked about progress on Iran sanctions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was not pleased -- but what can he expect? Clinton answered it (sort of) and the day was over.

I'm going out to dinner tonight with my old friend James and then back to DC tomorrow on the train.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ottawa (G8) March 29 2010

I've never been to Ottawa before and I don't think I can say I've been to Ottawa now, even though that's where I'm sitting. Doesn't look too spectacular in the photo, which is partly because its a crap photo taken by a cellular phone and partly because it is not too spectacular to begin with.

Clinton is here for one night for the annual meeting of the G8 foreign ministers. On the agenda is the predictable list of items, topped by Iran but also North Korea, Yemen, non-proliferation, etc etc. We got up early this morning in DC and had a choppy flight through fog up to Ottawa, which looks pretty much as one might expect. We are staying at the Chateau Laurier, the big Victorian pile next to the parliament buildings which I guess is (or was) Ottawa's go-to hotel. Its a big dingy now..or perhaps just dark. The hallways are wide and somberly lit..shades of "The Shining".

I sat in on an TV interview that a Canadian channel did with Clinton today. She is so good at this -- putting the interviewer at ease, good laugh. She was able to run through her talking points pretty much unimpeded. It is interesting to see how her staff closely monitors the TV feed monitors while the interview is going on..they want to see how the boss is coming across. She's a pro so they usually don't have much to worry about.

The headline tonight is a slightly more optimistic tone from Clinton (and others) on China's willingness to consider Iran sanctions. I'm not sure (and I don't think they are quite sure) if this is a real switch in position, or just another nuance of Beijing's very dragged out diplomacy on the whole thing. But it made for a bit of a story and that's enough, I guess.

Actually the good story of the day was Clinton slapping down a Canadian initiative to get a new "Arctic 5" group up and running. They had called together the main countries along the Arctic to discuss how things might pan out in light of global shipping lanes, fights over oil and mineral exploitation etc. But there is already an Arctic Council that deals with this, and clearly Washington felt we did not need another ad hoc group butting in. She essentially told them that in her opening remarks, and the Canadians quickly had to backtrack. Sort of pathetic..they had all kinds of glossy brochures printed up to talk about the "Arctic 5"..but now one gets the strong feeling it isn't going to happen. Witness the heft of the Superpower.

The only other tidbit I gleaned today was that Japan's foreign minister has among his hobbies a collection of porcelain frog figurines. God knows why the Japanese Foreign Ministry would put that in his official biography, but there it is....perhaps emblematic of the useless factoids that fill the air at meetings like this.

Tomorrow it is more G8 here and then to New York to prepare for the Haiti Donor's Conference on Wednesday. I've swung two days at the Waldorf...everyone tells me not to get too excited, but will be interesting to see the insides of that place (doubtless much like this one..outdated, dim and kind of spooky)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mexico City, March 23

Gold-plated pistols and weird corned beef pastries are what awaits visitors to the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

We came down with Clinton today for a one-day visit to talk about Plan Merida, the joinet U.S.-Mexico anti-drug effort. Clinton has brought a range of heavy hitters with her, including Homeland Security chief Napolitano, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Mexicans cleared the downtown -- no small feat -- so the motorcade could go through unimpeded, although we seem to have a lot of herky-jerky stops anyway. We went directly to the Foreign Ministry, where we are essentially stuck all day.

The gold-plated guns (including AK-47s) were part of an exhibition in the lobby to illustrate some of the firepower captured from narco-traffickers (most of which comes into Mexico from the United States). The corned beef pastries are lunch -- which is too bad because somehow I sense there could be a good taqueria just around the corner....

The Foreign Ministry itself is sort of 80's....lots of primary colors, floor-to-ceiling windows and a strong smell of detergent. They've got an interesting sculpture/fountain in the main courtyard, featuring lots of little pyramids...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Costa Rica-Guatemala March 4-5

We left Costa Rica this morning and I'm sitting now in the Presidential Palace in Guatemala City, a gorgeous Victorian building made out of a luminous greenish stone and replete with "hacienda"-style balconies, dim marble hallways, and murals of ancient Mayan goings-on.

Costa Rica didn't leave much of an impression, mostly because we spent the entire time at the Intercontinental hotel. We stayed there, the conference was there..I didn't leave the grounds --

The conference itself ("Pathways to Prosperity") was pretty news-free -- just lots of gassing about economic development and spreading opportunity. I don't know what the "deliverables" are for an organization like that, but if they have any they aren't well publicized.

We finished up around dinner time and age with some of the Clinton people. One good thing about these trips is the chance to talk to gov't types that we are kept well away from back in DC. They've all got so much on their plates -- and progress on the big issues (Iran, Mideast etc) is elusive...must be frustrating.

We left this morning for Guatemala. Nice flight up the Pacific Coast, and then into town for Clinton's last set of meetings. Compared to Costa Rica, Guatemala looks poor but interesting. There were lots of uniformed children marshalled to yell and cheer as Clinton arrived.

We did a short story on U.S. pledges to boost aid against drug trafficking. I also noticed this odd little "jacket" they'd crafted for the electric coffee pours from where you think it pours.

Home later..looking forward to it

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Brazil-Costa Rica March 3-4 2010

We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica at 4:00 AM from Brazil this morning -- Clinton is giving a speech later today at "Pathways to Prosperity", a regional grouping dedicated to democracy and economic development that nobody seems to know much about.

We arrived in Brasilia on Tuesday after spending four hours at the airport in Santiago, Chile, where Clinton met outgoing President Bachelet and delivered a fairly skimply earthquake relief gift of 20 satphones. She assured them that more U.S. help would be arriving --

The only sign that any disaster had occurred were the huge military cargo planes that kept taxiing on the runways behind the small building where Clinton and Bachelet met. When they came out to hold a press conference you could harldy hear them over the roaring engines.

It was tantalizing to get a glimpse of Brazil, although I have to say I found Brasilia a little disappointing. The famous Niemeyer Modernist government buildings all look pretty good in isolation, but when you put them together the result is a little dispiriting. It definitely feels like an artificial place, and one designed on a new quite human scale. I took the shot above inside the Foreign Ministry -- a nice scene, but I'm not sure I would want to work there.

Clinton didn't get much out of the Brazilians on Iran. The foreign minister politely informed her that Brazil would not "bow down" to any pre-determined international consensus on Iran. That's going to make the U.S. job more difficult in selling the new U.N. sanctions effort as a unified global effort. Clinton made her pitch, saying the Iranians simply were not negotiating honestly, but Brazil seems happy to give the process (Clinton would argue there isn't one) more time.

We left Brasilia for Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the country. I'd been looking forward to seeing it but got a little more than I bargained for. We left the airport in the motorocade which seemed to promptly get lose -- an hour rumbling over back streets and through dodgy neighborhoods. Very weird. We finally made it to our destination, Brazil's pre-eminent Afro-Brazilian university, where Clinton held one of her "Townterviews" with students....she comes across well in these, selling the Obama administration message, and the students seemed impressed.

Then back in the motorocade and a much quicker trip back to the airport (we were told there had been a highway accident on the way in, forcing the diversion)

7 hours later we arrived here. I'm going to see what's for breakfast

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Traveling with Hillary

After a long absence I am going to try to revive this blog with a new focus. I'm now covering the State Department and Hillary Clinton for Reuters, which means a lot of travel, and I will try to use this as a record of some of the stops along the way.'

The first thing about traveling with Clinton is the schedule is manic. I started this beat in October, and we've been flying almost non-stop -- Pakistan, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Belgium, London...they keep the stops as tight as possible, and we are lucky to see much "outside the bubble". But it is fascinating to see how the secretary of state moves around the world, and how she and her aides fine tune policy along the way.

I'm writing this from Brasilia, the half-way point in a five-day, six country tour of Latin America. We woke up this morning in Buenos Aires, spent the afternoon at the airport in Santiago, Chile, where she was delivering some earthquake relief (cellphones..only thing they could get on the plane on short notice) and then flew to Brazil

She's got meetings with the Brazilian foreign minister tomorrow and President Lula, and will be pressing them to support moves in the U.N. to put new sanctions on Iran. From the looks of it it could be a tough sell.

I'll try to get some of the news in here..if I can remember how, I'll link to my stories along the way. But this is more of an online diary of the trips. The challenge will be finding time along the way to update it -- sometimes we hardly have time to get out the news. But I will give it a go.

To start us off, here is a couple of pictures of Montevideo, where we spent Monday. It looks like a lovely city -- from wintry DC, it was into bright South American summer sunshine. There is a long marginal and lots of beaches, and on a holiday (inauguration day) the locals were soaking up the free time on the banks of the Plate River....

This was apparently for a long time the tallest structure in Latin America, and is Montevideo's trademark. Too bad about the antennae they've added to the top!

I wish I could have seen more (that is a constant refrain) but I liked what I saw -- I guess one thing about this job is it will help me hone my list of places to go when I've got more time to poke around.