Friday, December 2, 2011

Rangoon, Dec 2

We're wrapping up the Burma trip. It's been amazing -- we spent the morning at Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where she was under house arrest for close to 20 years.

Its a slightly dilapidated villa on the shores of a large lake, the same one that the American nut swam across several years ago in an attempt to "save" Suu Kyi. There is now a chain link fence topped with barbed wire along the shore line, but the rest of the house looks pretty untouched although Suu Kyi's people said they had been trying to fix it up for Clinton's arrival. The new paintjob seemed to limited to the veranda where she and Clinton made their public remarks.

We arrived before Clinton, whose motorcade came in about 15 minutes after we got there. It was impossible to see Aung San Suu Kyi (well anything except the flower decorating her hair do) as she welcomed Clinton to the house, and then they both went inside.

It was sunny and extremely hot, so we wandered around looking for shade. Along the way I encountered Aung San Suu Kyi's dog (see picture above). The name is unpronounceable and, even tho it looked mighty cute, Suu Kyi's aides said it has a nasty temper.

After their talks the two women -- the most famous female political figures in the world? -- walked around Suu Kyi's garden and then came to the veranda to make their statements. In person you can really see why Suu Kyi is compared to Mandela...she is as beautiful as he is handsome, and just as patrician. She and Clinton held hands as they addressed the media, and both said exactly the right things about democracy, halting rights violations, and making sure that Burma's ethnic conflicts are brought to a close.

After they finished it was an absolute scramble to call in the quotes. We are wrestling with satellite phones here...regular cellphones don't work here ... so every call is a gamble to see if the phone will find the satellite and the call will go through. And you have to call over and over again because the line keeps dropping, so I was dictating essentially a sentence at a time to the Reuters office in Bangkok to get the key quotes in.

We did that in the herky-jerky minibus headed to the ambassador's residence. This is one of the best looking U.S. ambassadorial setups I've seen -- also on a lake, great gardens going down the water, a tennis court, and a lovely house with teak paneling, ceiling fans and simple furniture. Looks like a good place to live.

My friend Neil Hamilton made me smile today with a message saying that he'd heard the design esthetic here is "Myanamarist"...which I guess is true.

The scene here is the view from my hotel window this morning as dawn broke over Rangoon. We haven't been able to see much of the city at all, but at least it looks like a real city unlike the brutal made-to-order capital. In the evening, the Shwedagon Pagoda is lit up in the distance and bars and restaurants twinkle beside the lakes that dot the city. The people seem reserved but friendly, and there were lots of smiles. But I don't think most people really knew who Clinton is or what this visit is all about. The state media has not been playing it very strong (not as strong as their front page story about the visiting prime minister of Belarus!) so they must be mystified as this great screeching motorcade plows through the city.

We are waiting for another Clinton press conference, and then its back on the plane for the 22+ hour trip home. I'm going to try to write up a "reporter's notebook" on the trip to file from our stop in Yokohama.

UPDATE: here's a link to the reporter's notebook piece

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Naypyitaw and Rangoon, Dec 1

We're in Rangoon...what a day. Its been long and fascinating -- fighting with sat phones always adds to the frisson.

I'm just adding this now to show a pictures of the Pagoda visit Clinton made this evening before heading off to dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi (their first face to face meeting).

Here's the story I did on it -- I'll try to fill out more detail tomorrow

Security goes barefoot with Clinton in Myanmar

By Andrew Quinn

YANGON (Reuters) - U.S. security went barefoot on Thursday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured one of Myanmar's most revered shrines, a towering golden pagoda that is the symbol of a country seeking fresh rapprochement with the West.

Clinton arrived at the Shwedagon Pagoda shortly after arriving in Myanmar's main commercial city, Yangon, and took off her shoes to follow respectful Buddhist tradition at a site rich with religious and patriotic significance for the country also known as Burma.

Clinton's U.S. diplomatic security detail quickly followed suit, while barefoot agents in business suits fanned out across the huge complex of spires and Buddha statues, muttering into their radios.

A crowd of tourists and local visitors applauded as Clinton made the rounds, stopping to make an offering of flowers in front of the Gold Buddha statue, one of the centerpieces of the elaborate pagoda site, as well as to pause and hit a huge bell three times with a gold-adorned staff.

"Hitting the bell means she is sharing the merits of today's events for both of our countries," said Phone Myint, one of the tour guides at the shrine which dates back as far as the 6th century.

The visit represented an incongruous mash-up of official Washington, Asian tradition and modern-day tourism, with Clinton and her entire staff of diplomats, advisers and the travelling press all shuffling shoe-less past Buddha statues decorated with neon halos and stalked by feral cats.

The pagoda stop was also one of Clinton's few chances to see anything of modern-day Myanmar, which is implementing tentative political reforms as it seeks to improve ties with Washington after decades of estrangement.

She is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years, and U.S. officials say they still know little about a country many view as both hermetic and hard to read.

After finishing her pagoda tour, officials handed out moistened towelettes so the U.S. delegation could clean their feet.

Clinton later left her hotel for a dinner at the U.S. charge d'affaires residence with Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate who has endorsed Washington's outreach to Myanmar's new military-backed civilian leaders.

The pair - arguably the two most famous women in the world - will dine on their own during their first face-to-face meeting, comparing notes on Myanmar's political reforms and the country's halting steps to re-engage with the rest of the world.

Earlier in the day, Clinton got an up-close view of another side of Myanmar, meeting President Thein Sein at his enormous presidential palace in the new capital of Naypyitaw - an almost deserted city established on orders of the former junta several years ago.

Clinton was the first senior U.S. official ever to visit the presidential office, and her car zipped along a deserted, 20-lane highway to reach the complex, a vast concoction of marble and chandeliers set on a bluff and protected by what looked like a moat.

Here's a picture of the palace: you don't really get a sense of how over the top it is, but it is.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Busan, South Korea and Napyitaw, Burma Nov 30

We flew from DC to Busan last night (this morning? it's all a little confused). Clinton was in South Korea to attend a conference on international aid, but the real point of this trip is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

I've written the story over and over again over the past week or so, but now that it is happening it really DOES feel historic -- the first U.S. secretary of state to visit since 1955, the potential opening of one of the world's most reclusive and at times brutal regimes.

Busan was sort of a wash -- we were exhausted after the 20 hour trip, and the point of the conference (international aid) was worthy but a little dull, at least as far as an international meeting goes. She gave a speech, took a dig at China, which is expanding its own international aid programs but does not follow the same standards when it comes to transparency and accountability, and that was it. Pusan is a good looking place: the world's fifth largest port, lots of new skycrapers around the harbor, and another one of these amazing new Asian bridges that soars across the narrows. But we didn't see much and it was all over so fast.

Then the flight to Burma. Five hours, and everyone was a little edgy. They played the movie "Beyond Rangoon" -- a pretty awful Hollywood offering from a few years ago about a pretty young American woman (of course) caught up in the Burmese pro-democracy demonstrations and ensuing brutal crackdown in 1988. I was nervous all the way because of my rough experience with sat phones in Libya, and wasn't sure how the whole thing would turn out.

Lots of turbulence as we passed into Burmese airspace, and then the descent to the weird new capital of Nyapytaw (I can never spell that right), the new capital that the regime built from scratch about five years ago in the middle of the country because, it is said, the top general got a premonition that the U.S. was going to attack Rangoon.

On the way down we flew past an enormous gold-plated stupa, and then onto the airfield -- which has no terminal, and no lights so we had to arrive before sunset. She came down the staircase to a low-key welcome from a handful of Burmese officials, while photographers snapped pictures standing underneath a huge "welcome banner" -- for the prime minister of Belarus, who arrives tomorrow (!).

The motorcade trundled along a very new but very uneven highway, past rice paddies and construction sites for more of the new ministry buildings which the government is building everywhere even though nobody lives here. At most intersections there were uniformed policemen very solemnly holding up their hands to stop non-existent traffic...there are even fewer cars than people!

We're at the hotel now..It has Internet which is a huge relief. And my sat phone is working. far, so good. Clinton starts her meetings tomorrow

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dushanbe-Tashkent Oct 22-23

The president of Tajikistan had us over to lunch today, which is the first time we've been fed (officially) since the King of Bahrain earlier this year.

After the hectic pace of the past few days, today was a bit better. Clinton's official program didn't start until 10:00 a.m., which at least offered the potential of decent night's sleep. Last night was quiet, and I ordered chicken shashlik from room service -- one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, perhaps just because it was different from the plane food, which has featured turkey at EVERY MEAL this week. We've had turkey sandwiches, turkey chili, turkey lasagna, turkey has been weird and, as the week wore on, sort of disgusting. But last night's shashlik was incredible...a hunk of perfectly "wood cooked" chicken, a fantastic salad of tomatos and onions, and that was it. Couldn't have asked for better.

Back to today's schedule: Clinton went to the Ismaili Center, which is one of the organizations funded by the Aga Khan, to hold another one of her "town hall" meetings with local students, activists, NGO workers etc. These are always pretty impressive, mostly because the people asking the questions seem so sophisticated and their questions (usually in very good English, no matter where we go) so earnest. She talked a lot about human rights -- not a strong suit for either the Uzbek or Tajik governments -- and about allowing religious freedom, which both places are trying to suppress because they fear the growth of Islamic militancy. It was a pretty standard Clinton performance, but you can tell she believes what she is saying so it is effective.

We then got back in the vans and drove back through Dushanbe to the "Presidential Dacha" where she was to meet the president, one of a group of authoritarian leaders that has persisted in this corner of the former Soviet Union. I liked the look of Dushanbe in the is small, grey, and has a lot of Soviet era architecture. But there are snow capped mountains in the distance and the boulevards are wide.

The dacha was a bit looked like an 80s modern office building on the outside, complete with mirrored windows. Inside it was all marble and presidential. She met the president, then came out and did a press conference with the foreign minister. His speech really showed you where Tajikistan is politically -- 100 pct apparatchik, stilted, uncomfortable, government-line. By contrast Clinton seemed very human and alive. She delivered the same message about religion and human rights, this time going harder and saying that regional efforts to suppress Islamic worship risked creating the very kind of militants they were out to discourage. The official party then went into lunch with the president, and we were taken to an other part of the dacha where, low and behold, the lunch above awaited. It was pretty good..little roast quail, hunks of mutton and pilaf, and big piles of cucumbers and tomatoes. Nobody was complaining.

We were not able to get Clinton to talk about the "Northern Distribution Network" -- the backdoor route into Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the other countries in the region. It seems pretty clear to me that that is why she is here, cozying up to these autocrats.

We're in for the evening in Tashkent -- she's off meeting President Karimov, the worst of the bunch.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Islamabad, Oct 20-21

This trip feels like it has gone on for a loooong time...and it isn't over yet. Something about the quick pace, multiple stops and lack of sleep all combines to make it feel like a real trek. It has been really interesting but I am tired!

We arrived in Islamabad from Afghanistan last night. Direct to the Embassy, where they put us up in their version of the container-dorm room "hooches". Not bad. We were back in the regular filing center, in the "community center" next to the embassy pool, where the staff had actually provided a refrigerator full of beer (gratis) which seemed above and beyond the call of duty.

And then we waited. And waited. Clinton, the new CIA director Petraeus and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs were all in town (an "interagency" intervention with the Pakistanis) and were all going to a dinner with their Pakistani opposite numbers. We were going to get a read-out of the meeting when it finished..which wasn't until 2 a.m. Not what we were looking for, but I can't imagine what it was like for Clinton and the other officials who actually had to think while they were waiting. We were just waiting. Finally Toria Nuland, the State Dept spokesperson, came out and told us that the meeting lasted four hours -- and absolutely nothing else. We could have gone to bed at 9. But that's the way these things back to the hooches, go to bed, try to sleep..and four hours later it is time to get up.

There's something about the cumulative sleep deprivation that makes it fun, in a gruesome sort of way. You have an excuse to be cranky, to sit there with your eyes closed...and everybody else is doing the same thing. The normal rules don't apply.

Except to Clinton, who has to keep on with her packed schedule of meetings. Woke up, had a bowl of cheerios in the little canteen, and then back in the vans to go to the Foreign Ministry where Clinton had a presser with the new, 34-year old Pakistani foreign minister. Islamabad is still such a weird feels suburban and threatening at the same time. There are checkpoints everywhere. And not many people smile (at least when you are riding in a U.S. embassy van).

The presser was ok..Clinton said her piece about how it is crucial that the Pakistanis go after militants, and the Pakistani said they totally agreed but it will take time to "operationalize" the agreement. Huh? Doesn't sound like the message got thru.

There was other stuff..Clinton holding a "town hall" meeting with various Pakistanis at the Serena Hotel in a ballroom that smelled very strongly of lighter fluid (accelerant? you think of that kind of thing in Pakistan)...another media "round table" with Clinton where she revealed that U.S. had had a preliminary meeting with the Haqqani network militants...back to the embassy, she did the "meet and greet" get the picture. Tired. In fact I forgot to take a picture until the last minute at the embassy, where I took the above pic of a signpost. Shows you how big the place is.

We are now in Tajikistan, home of the tallest flagpole in the world. More tomorrow.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kabul Oct 20

From Muscat we flew three hours to Kabul. The descent was the same as before: the close all the shades on the plane, turn the lights down low and then point the nose sharply down -- a steep, rapid plummet that is supposed to make the plane harder to shoot down. You gotta wonder how much of that is "security theater" and how much is real but they seem to take it seriously, so we all buckled up.

Once we landed they took the press off the back of the plane and loaded us immediately into Chinook helicopters. Clinton and the official team went by motorcade, but they wanted to keep the motorcade as short as possible so we got to go by air. Even tho I can be a nervous flier I like going in helicopters..there's something about the slow progress you make low over a city that is thrilling. This one was especially so as the pilot kept swerving and swooping -- presumably more "defensive flying" to make it difficult to target.

We got to the huge embassy -- its really a massive complex -- and were taken to the press filing center. Its a really weird place. There are a couple of "normal" looking buildings, and a big central hall, but most of the rest of it is in temporary container-type buildings ringed by sandbags. We were billeted in these "hooches" which are pretty basic but have running water and a shower, which is all you need. Lots of warnings about security like the one posted above. To get from one part of the embassy complex to the other you have to walk thru a subterranean tunnel that goes under a street -- it definitely feels like a military installation. We waited interminably for a briefing which finally came about midnight, so I updated the story and went to bed. (NB: I should note that on a lot of these trips much of the heavy lifting is done by the local bureau. I had emailed notes to our Kabul team before I left Muscat and they were able to use those to put together a pretty comprehensive story the minute she landed. I just took that and updated it with new quotes from the briefing).

Got to sleep around 2 a.m. and back up at 7. Heard a weird whirring, humming..was it an alarm? Strange to be in a place where they keep warning out about those things. But it didn't sound like a siren and when I opened the door it was clearly a piece of equipment operating nearby.

Back to the press center (after a breakfast at the canteen) and then Clinton began her series of events: a "round table with civil society activists", followed by a slow trip in an armoured convoy which we joined down to the Presidential palace where she was to meet Karzai and have a news conference. The whole trip couldn't have been more than 1/4 of a mile but they insisted we stay inside the armored vehicles. We got to the palace -- the former king's palace, a great structure of grey stone with huge wooden doors, and then went thru one of the most comprehensive security screenings I've ever endured. Every pocket, every inch of the body...weird but I guess this place is assassination central so they take every precaution.

I would continue but they've just told us we're leaving early for Islamabad and so we have to pack up. Safe to say Clinton had some very harsh words for the Pakistanis in her remarks in Kabul -- much stronger than we had led to believe she would deliver. So the whole next part of the trip seems very tense: I don't think the Pakistanis will appreciate being given an ultimatum about support for militants, but that was certainly her message.

Next stop Islamabad.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Malta-Tripoli-Muscat Oct 17-19

This is just a quick one -- haven't had time to do this since we left Washington, and there's a lot to say but I am just going to get down the main details and try to fill it in later.

We left Washington on Monday morning and flew through the day to land in Malta 10 hours later in the middle of the night their time. We went straight to the hotel and checked in, and I got to bed around 5 a.m. We were back in the press van at 9:00 to follow Clinton to her meeting with the Maltese PM. Malta looked pretty nice outside the window...lots of bays, old buildings, statues..I don't know much about it as a place but they have a crazy hybrid language (apparently one of the most difficult ones in the EU which is a cross between Romance languages and Arabic. Made for some very weird looking signs.

Clinton had a few public words after her meeting with the Maltese, and then we were back off to the airport. This time, instead of her regular plane, we all loaded onto a massive C-17 military transport plane. They are impressive pieces of equipment, but without any of the ususal frills. In the big empty interior they had bolted a "pod" of four business class seats for Clinton and her top advisors. Unfortunately these looked directly at two porta-potties, which were the plane's only facilities. Behind them was another bolted pod of about 20 regular plane seats, which the other officials sat in. The press and various other hangers on all sat along the sides. The plane only has a couple of small windows, so you feel like you are in a rocket as you take off...its ascent is very steep, but then it levels out and it feels absolutely rock solid.

The flight from Malta to Tripoli is only about 45 minutes, so shortly afterwards we were on the ground. The Diplomatic Security guys were all pretty nervous and as soon as we got out in was obvious why -- the airport is under the control of one of the various militias and they all were waiting outside, with guns and big smiles on their faces.

For the wire reporters it was hectic because we all had satphones and were trying to call in first word of Clinton's visit, which had been kept officially secret until her arrival. The service was patchy, the lines wouldn't go through..but eventually they did (although I fear mine was the last call to make it in so my story was probably last on the wire). We were taken to the interim offices of the interim gov't...a former Islamic center.. and Clinton had her meetings with the new leadership. Then she did a press conference and hit the themes that were repeated all day: congratulations for Libya, but also urging them to make good on their promises to open up the political sphere and to get the militias under control. I think she was also hoping to do some expectation management: its not all going to get better right away. Disillusionment could become a big problem.

From the gov't offices we went to Tripoli University, where Clinton had one of her "town hall" meetings with students. The students themselves were very impressive: all speaking good English (they must have been screened for English skills) and questions about women's rights, freedom of expression, preventing dictatorship, and how to integrate Libya in the broader international community. There were also a few wild card questions ("I am a dental student and I am interested in U.S. dentistry") and Clinton seemed tired -- she coughed her way all through the speech. The university looked fairly grim but it was festooned with pro-revolution graffiti and caricatures of Gaddafi being stamped by a boot etc.

After the university she went to a big Tripoli hospital where she visited some soldiers wounded in the fighting. She came to Libya with promises of more U.S. help for treating the "war wounded" and she met with one guy who had his legs shot off in the battle for Bani Walid. We weren't allowed in the hospital (except for a photographer).

Then it was off to the temporary U.S. embassy, now located in the former U.S. ambassador's residence because the main building had been trashed by Gaddafi's forces. She did her usual "meet and greet" speech but also gave special notice to the Libyan staff, who had stayed on through some pretty dire political pressure and kept things safe. Amazing what people will do.

Then..the drive back to the airport. Halfway there we passed from the zone of one militia to the zone of another, and the cars/trucks accompanying us all changed..jeeps packed with young guys carrying guys and wearing an assortment of fatigues, cheering and laughing and hanging out of their car windows, weaving back and forth in and out of the convoy. It was wild...and they went with us right out to the plane. There Clinton, always a good sport, posed with some of them, doing the "V" for victory sign. They all shouted "Allah Akbar" as she climbed back on the plane to leave.

Then back to Malta, plane change, six hours to Oman, where we arrived at 5 a.m. An hour to the hotel, and sleep -- for about five hours. Late lunch, back on the plane and now we are in Kabul.

I'll try to update/expand this later but wanted to get it down now while it is still fresh. Below is a shot of a mosque in Muscat that we passed on the way to the airport.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Santo Domingo Oct 5

This is not the ambassador's house -- it's the Dominican Foreign Ministry, which used to be the residence of infamous dictator Trujillo. Its got a crazy, Miami-vibe...lime green hallways, lots of deco chandeliers, and inner courtyards all done up in sun-blazing yellow.

We are only here for a couple of hours. Clinton is attending yet another "Pathway to Prosperity" event, trying to push for greater U.S. engagement with Latin America while urging countries to open up opportunity to more of their people.

The event itself, I'm sad to say, is pretty news free -- she comes, meets a lot of people, they talk about prosperity, and then she leaves. But it is part of the "showing up" ethos of Clinton's vision for her office. She often says the most important thing she can do is show up, to show people that the United States takes them seriously. It can be pretty exhausting but I guess the hope is that she can personally win back some of the goodwill that the U.S. may have lost (or be losing) through its other actions.

Anyway we flew down from DC this morning, arriving at around 2. From there straight to the Foreign Ministry, where the Pathways event was held. After a couple of hours, we relocated to the U.S. ambassador's house where she met embassy staff and then held a press conference (weirdly, in a very dark room..I doubt the TV cameras were able to get much). She gave us some good quotes on the Russia/China veto of the Syrian resolution at the United Nations and about the UNESCO decision to vote on Palestinian we had two solid stories. We're writing those up now and then -- while she has dinner with the foreign minister -- we go back to the airport to wait for her. I'm hoping that there's a beer hall there..its hot and sticky here, and my suit feels unpleasantly like snakeskin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Paris Sept 1

It sounds nice..Paris, end of summer, sunny day -- Well, all those things are true, but unfortunately we are only here for about 7 hours.

Clinton had to interrupt her vacation to come to the newly-dubbed "Friends of Libya" meeting that Sarkozy called, a one-day (in fact, just a couple of hour) gathering of the anti-Gaddafi coalition and the Libya rebels to decide what comes next now that Gaddafi looks to be on the way out.

We left DC at around 11 p.m., flew all night and arrived here at 11 a.m. in the morning their time. The motorcade came directly to the ambassador's residence, where they have parked the journalists for the duration since all of Clinton's meetings and one-on-one encounters with various leaders are held behind closed doors. Its a nice place (see photo of rear of building, above) but there is precious little for us to do while we wait for her to finish. She is supposed to come back after dinner and give us a briefing on what happened, then we all head back to the airport and back to Washington. If all goes according to plan we should arrive around 1 a.m., so it total that makes for 27 hour trip to Europe.

Paris may be the world capital of French cuisine, but they clearly don't have the take-out pizza mastered. Take a gander at my lunch (below)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hong Kong July 24-25

I'm sitting in a Chinese government guest house in Shenzhen eating french fries and drinking watermelon juice -- an appropriately weird end to this very long and sort of weird trip.

We arrived in HK late last night, which was a shame because that meant I missed a Sichuan restaurant that David and Rachel Schlesinger had booked. They sent me pictures of the food, which struck me as a little cruel under the circumstances. But I'm sure I'll have another chance at some point.

Not much to see of HK at night. We stayed at the Shangri-La, which I'd never be able to afford on my own. But the time was so short there was no time to enjoy it: just arrive, fall into bed, get up, repack, and leave. Good breakfast tho...

Clinton gave a speech this morning to the American Chamber of Commerce. The idea was to drive U.S. "economic diplomacy" and assure Asia that we are in the game for the long haul. Unfortunately the message was completely overshadowed by the budget/debt limit crisis and it hard to see how her audience would believe her when the news out of Washington is so dismal. Default? Seems incredible.

After the speech we got in the motorcade and drove to Shenzhen. I've never done that before, and it certainly takes one through some pretty impressive territory. Row after row of cargo loading cranes, all working feverishly. Long bright tunnels through mountains. An immense bridge, part of it suspension, crossing a river that was dotted with little rafts that we figured must have something to do with fish (or shrimp) farming.

We were alone on the road the whole way -- the benefits of an authoritarian gov't. And even Shenzhen felt like a ghost town. Not many people on the streets, no traffic, just cops keeping the motorcade moving. We ended up at this gov't guest house which looks and feels a lot like Diaoyutai in Beijing. We were expecting a cool (or at least ambivalent) reception but the Chinese have put us into a nice ballroom with tables and a sort of odd East/West minibuffet including french fries, melon balls, spring rolls...

She's here for a couple of hours and then the motorcade heads back to HK directly to the airport. Then -- the plane, for about 17 hours. I'm not looking forward to that but I am looking forward to getting home. This has been a really good trip: so many interesting places, a fair amount of news, and only one overnight (tonight, unfortunately) on the plane. It could be easy to get used to traveling like this, but I'm sure the next trip will revert to type and be a huge rush...

UPDATE: well a little bit of last minute excitement. As we were leaving the gov't guesthouse compound, the press van stalled out -- dead. Clinton's motorcade swept out of the gates and we were left stranded. Luckily there was one embassy car behind us, and one of the embassy guys jumped out and got us all to pile in. We then took off again, but as soon as we left the compound we realized that the motorcade traffic controls were off and the streets were FULL of traffic..bumper to bumper with buses, cars, people. It seemed hopeless. The embassy guy was really pretty heroic -- at every intersection he jumped out and negotiated with the Chinese police (using sign language..he didn't speak Chinese) to try to get us waved thru. He pressed the driver to speed up, and we were swerving hercky jercky through the traffic trying to catch the motorcade before the border. I'm not sure what would have happened if we didnt make it -- none of us had our passports on us -- but as it turned out the motorcade realized we had dropped off and was waiting for us at the border crossing. Phew.

As a reward (?) we were treated to the following for dinner -- behold: "Peking Chicken", as envisioned by the U.S. Airforce

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bali, July 21-24

Words to the wise, in any situation.

The Grand Hyatt sure beats the Heat Dome. We are here in Bali, just about 100 yards from the beach, while DC and the rest of the East Coast swelters in a huge heat wave. Its about 80 degrees here, there's a breeze off the sea, and the Grand Hyatt is set up to please. It doesn't feel the slightest bit like "Bali", except through the most jaded of marketers' eyes. But it feels lovely nonetheless.

We arrived on Thursday evening from Chennai, and went straight to the hotel. Clinton's visit here is centered on the ASEAN Regional Forum ("ARF" for those in the know), but also deals with North Korea and other issues.

We headed over to the Bali International Conference Center on Friday and pretty quickly got down to business -- Clinton had a relatively strong statement on Burma, which she said threatened the future cohesion of ASEAN, as well as some stuff about North Korea. That story quickly emerged as the main trunk of the day -- the North and South Korean nuclear negotiators for the first time in two years, and everybody is making positive but guarded noises about whether or not the "Six Party Talks" on the North's nuclear program can resume.

We spent a bit of the day at the conference center but then went back to the hotel. Its a strange place -- absolutely massive. The worst part is that you can never really be sure where your room is: all the buildings look similar, and are all at sort of strange angles to each other connected by covered walkways. We've spent more time wandering around trying to get our bearings than anything else.

The beach is lovely -- see pic. I went swimming yesterday afternoon, and took a walk on it again this morning. The water is pretty shallow but its great for splashing around in...and off in the distance you can see a major surf break, with huge waves crashing. At nightime you can walk along the shore and see the moon reflected off the ocean. The only off note are the Indonesian special forces guys standing in the shadows with machine guns..I'm not sure if this is for Clinton, or just a regular feature of life in Bali.

This morning there were only a few people around - including this guy who apparently hopped off his motorbike and got immediately to fishing without even removing his helmet.

We're back at the conference center now. We get periodic briefings from U.S. officials on what is going on..but never with much detail. The South China Sea story has also been pretty big, and Clinton today called on all the claimants to back up their stakes with legal documentation. The Chinese aren't going to like that, since their claim is based largely on "historical precedent."

Still -- this hasn't been a particularly grueling assignment, I have to admit. I finally had some things cleaned and pressed, so I feel more or less presentable again. We've had some ok food at the hotel (once we located the restaurant), and the story has been good but not flat out urgent.

We're here for one more day and then head off to Hong Kong for one night, then home. It feels like a long time -- but I'm not sad to be missing the Heat Dome with time at the beach!

Here's a final image -- sunrise in Bali

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chennai July 20-21

Just a quick entry for Chennai, where the schedule was pretty hectic and we only had a day.

First=Hot. This place, formerly Madras, is the hottest we've been to yet. I knew it was going to be (an Indian man, sweating happily in New Delhi, told me Chennai was "a sauna" and he wasn't kidding). Haven't seen much of the city but it is obviously a much more organic city than those parts of Delhi we saw. Traffic, full of buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuk pedicabs, is incredible and lots of people milling around on the streets.

We arrived at Chennai airport (see picture) -- the Indian infrastructure binge clearly hasn't reached it -- and then went immediately to the city's new library, billed as the largest in India, where Clinton gave her policy speech. The speech was pretty clearly aimed at China, although she was careful not to say so explicitly. But any call for India to "lead" in Asia is bound to ruffle feathers in Beijing.

We had almost no time to file, and then it was back in the bus to head to Clinton's "cookstove" event where she was advocating for clean cookstoves which officials say can do a huge amount both to combat premature deaths due to smoke exposure and to fight climate change by cutting soot emissions. Hot again, particularly standing under a covered veranda with a bunch of burning cookstoves....

We were able to ditch the motorcade there and come back to the hotel to write up the speech with more background/context. It all seemed to work (I did a brief story on the cookstoves too -- it may be a bit of Clinton propaganda, but its also a "worthy" topic and one worth getting out there.

Dinner last night was Italian..real Italian. The hotel didn't even have an Indian restaurant (I guess the local grub is way too hot for visitors who would stay at a hotel like this). But I had excellent scallops and a weird kind of pasta. It ended up cost about $100 a head, which seems criminal in this country...but the food was great.

We are packing now and off to Bali. Hopefully we'll arrive before the sun sets. The next few days are going to be busy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Delhi July 19-20

Naan of the Gods. Definitely the highlight of the trip to New Delhi...we went out for dinner last night at "Bukhara" (the original) -- tandoori oven roasted meat, great paneer, beer, and this most awesome naan.

Delhi isn't quite what I expected -- although I am the first to admit I haven't really seen any of it, so it may STILL be what I expected, but just somewhere else. We arrived late Monday night from Athens and came to the Taj Palace (Jim's favorite hotel in the world). When Clinton arrived they had a sort of Indian brass band playing at the entrance, with guards in full mufti holding torches and great banging drums. Very Survivor. The hotel is lots of marble and lots of staff all asking you what do you want, can I help you etc. etc. We had a drink in the bar (the only off-note..disco music and attitude) and then went to bed.

Just as I was getting to sleep the phone rang and one of Clinton's aides said to come down to the lobby. There had been a story out of Tripoli that about the Libyans announcing they had held talks with U.S. officials. We were brought down (at about 3 a.m. local time, but we're all at a stage now where we have no real idea what time it is anytime) and we talked to "a U.S. official" who essentially confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but emphasized that it was only to deliver a face-to-face message that Gaddafi must go. This was news, unfortunately, so I had to call in the headline to London and then run back upstairs to write the story. Back in bed by about 4 and up again at 9 to begin the day.

It wasn't a terribly hectic schedule which was fine with me. We followed Clinton to the Foreign Ministry where she was holding 'strategic dialogue' talks, and then had a press conference with her and the Indian foreign minister. They didn't say too much but clearly there hadn't been much progress on the biggest item of the U.S. wishlist,which is for India to change its laws governing corporate liability so that U.S. energy companies can sell them nuclear reactors. Its a tough question, because the only other competitors for selling reactors (France, Russia) are all state companies and as such not worried about liability issues. But even a minor accident could spell big legal trouble for GE or Westinghouse if they get sued in court, so the U.S. wants the law changed. Not an easy sell in the land of Bhopal.

After that I went back with one of my Indian colleagues to our bureau in New Delhi. There are a couple of old friends working there, and it was nice to see them if only briefly. We did up an update on my earlier story on Clinton's visit and then I took a buro car back to the hotel. I was trying to take some pictures out of the car window and the driver noticed, so he decided to show me some of the highlights of this neighborhood...stopping in the middle of traffic to point out this or that building and then urging me to "snap, snap" a photo. It was hilarious and he had absolutely no concern about tying up traffic flow....the pictures (on a blackberry, out of a car window) were no good but it was fun nonetheless. Still...we didn't get out of the "official" neighborhoods of Delhi which are all very well laid out and very leafy. Another fabricated capital city...I'd love to see old Delhi, but not on this trip.

We did do a quick excursion to a craft market -- sort of predictable stuff, but I did pick up a few things. And HOT. It seemed to get hotter as the sun went down. But I guess it is just as hot in DC this week...

After that it was NAAN and bed. I'm up early this morning and feel like I've had a good sleep so that is great. We leave in a couple of hours for Chennai, where Clinton is giving a "major address" on U.S.-India relations in the 21st century and doing a vew cultural things like a dance performance. The hope is that she'll get out there and try a few moves...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Athens July 17-18

Its a short one hour flight from Istanbul to Athens but the two places feel totally different. Athens on arrival was hot, with a big full moon looming. We convoyed to Clinton's hotel, and then on to our less fancy hotel -- but still nice enough, sitting across the street from a beach.

Whereas in Istanbul I woke up to the sound of the muzzein, here it was church bells. Right across the street in this very touristy neighborhood is a tiny little orthodox church, with an old man who came out to slowly ring the bell by pulling a rope on the clapper. There were a small group of people gathered outside..I thought they might be tourists, but then they all crossed themselves orthodox-style. Sunday morning in Athens!

It was a good day. Clinton had a meeting with the Greek foreign minister, at which she pledged full U.S. support for Greece's painful austerity measures (she compared it to chemotherapy). Then she had closed door meetings with the PM and the president, and we were taken to the Acropolis Museum in downtown Athens at the foot of the Acropolis itself. Its a beautiful, modern museum -- and the inside seemed so clean, all marble statues and bright light. The museum people were incredibly kind to us, setting us up in their VIP suite and bringing coffee and eventually meatballs and fruit. These days always seem to go by so fast -- we were there for a couple of hours and then Clinton came to sign a new cultural MOU with Greece aimed at putting new barriers to trafficking in cultural artifacts.

It was a funny event -- Clinton standing in the main gallery of the museum with the Parthenon in the background, a few members of Athenian cultural glitterati around, and then lots of tourists gawping from behind barrier ropes. This lady's shoes struck me as sort of peculiar..on the back they had a big IZOD alligator.

We didn't get to see much of Athens itself, but it seemed a smaller and grittier city than Istanbul. Lots of graffiti, lots of closed shops. The main square looked to have a permanent encampment of protesters angry over the austerity drive. The whole place feels terribly hot and dry...I wonder how they provide the city with water.

But hey, it's ATHENS! Something spooky about being in a place where "it all started". Flying over from Istanbul, I was looking at the in-flight map on the airplane videoscreen and the Aegean, with all of its islands, looked like a sort of mini-galaxy ... a world unto itself, until the larger world was revealed. I'd love to see more of it.

After Clinton left we made our way to a restaurant for an early dinner...and what a restaurant! It was recommended by the brother of one of Clinton's aides, and it was a spectacular place on a terrace with a full view of the Acropolis in the background. Gorgeous late afternoon light, not too hot, and just the right kind of food: Greek salad, octopus, some kind fried Haloumi cheese, stuffed eggplant...perfect!

After that -- long day !! -- we went back and watched the U.S. lose to Japan in the women's World Cup soccer. Too bad because it would have been nice to win, but you figure Japan might need a boost right now after everything its been through in the last few months.

Up early this morning for "bag drag" to deposit luggage. Then, since it early, sunny, and we are about 30 yards from the Aegean..I went swimming with my AFP colleague Christophe. Perfect water, big white cruise boat in the distance, a few islands dotted around......sometimes you just have to kick yourself to remind you its all actually real.

Seven hours or so to Delhi, where it is apparently 110 degrees.....

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Istanbul July 15-16

Wow. Istanbul! It looks fantastic -- sharp hills, water views, minarets -- just the way it's advertised. Definitely a place that makes you want to come back.

We got in early Friday morning and after some sleep followed Clinton over to the latest Libya Contact Group meeting, being held at an old Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosphorus. U.S. officials advertised this meeting as a "pivot point" in the war against Gaddafi, and it became clear why: Clinton said the U.S. would formally recognize the TNC as Libya's legitimate government, which means the rebels may be able to get their hands on frozen Libyan funds in the U.S.

Its hard to tell how closely these things are choreographed before they even start....U.S. officials said halfway through the day that the question of diplomatic recognition had yet to be decided, but the Italian foreign minister came out at almost the same time and said all of the coalition members had decided to give the TNC full recognition. And the "pivot point" comment ahead of time makes one think this was the pre-planned "deliverable" of the conference long before we arrived there.

Nevertheless, it made for some news which was great. The old palace (now part of a Kempinski hotel) was beatiful, and sitting right on the water (see above) with views of Istanbul's version of the Golden Gate Bridge. About halfway through the day somebody yelled and a regatta of about 50 sailboats was blowing by -- huge colorful spinnakers full with the wind, bright sunshine -- fantastic.

After the Libya meeting was over we convoyed up to Clinton's next meeting at an Islamic research insitute, where she had a meeting with the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (could there be a more unwieldy name?), a sort of Islamic UN. They had been trying for a long time to get the U.N. pass a resolution barring 'defamation' of religion -- something the U.S. sees as a violation of free speech rights -- and Clinton was there to talk to them about ways to have religion respected without violation freedom of expression. Tricky ideas and hard to communicate in a story, particularly when you are working at a tiny table in a dark ante-room of the research center where the temperature must have been 99 degrees.

Then..the day was over! It was already 7:30 pm but it felt early thanks to the time lag. A couple of us had a drink at the hotel's top floor bar, which has a stupendous view across the entire city with the Hagia Sophia in the distance. There just isn't time to get out and actually see anything like that this time around, but I definitely want to come back to explore it more.

Then we went down to dinner to a place which took pride in the fact that it had separate dining rooms (as well as separate kitchens) for its meat and fish dishes. I had kebab with onions and it was absolutely delicious.

Today we've got another full day -- Clinton is meeting "youth" at an Istanbul coffee shop, then meeting the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, then Turkish foreign minister and prime minister, where doubtless the Syria crisis will be front and center.

After that -- Athens.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dubai June 14

An unexpected 10 hour layover. What can I say -- the hotel is next to the gigantic Dubai Mall, where people wander around aimlessly just like in American malls. It is funny to see Arab families in full regalia eating cheese pizza next to an ice rink.

I got up and had a swim in the hotel pool, which has a view of the Burj Dubai..the world's tallest building, and the the world's largest "dancing waters" fountain, complete with heavenly chorus soundtrack

Here's a picture from the mall -- their main "waterfall" water feature

Addis Ababa June 13

Hectic!...It as a very long day yesterday, that ended with an unexpected diversion due to a volcanic explosion.

We woke up in Dar es Salaam, and Clinton had some final meetings including with the President Kikwete. They did a press conference at the presidential palace (see the boxed lions above)...It was kind of funny -- they had set up a normal press conference room, but reserved the front five rows for officials so the reporters were all jammed into the back. We had to shout our questions over all the official heads...silly.

Then we left for Addis. Along the way the pilots took a little diversion to give us a good view of Kilimanjaro -- snowy peak (although the snow is receding) agove a sea of clouds, with some breaks where you can see the Serengeti plan. It really was beautiful.

We arrived in Addis after a very choppy ride, and went to the hotel where Clinton changed her clothes. Then off to the AU headquarters in a huge rainstorm..everyone got "USAID" umbrellas and most of them blew out in the wind and rain, so we arrived soaking.

The AU headquarters is now an old, sort of tired building -- but next door is a brand new gleaming headquarters being built by the Chinese, topped with a huge glass dome. Hard to argue with that.

Clinton gave her speech at the AU, urging them to drop Gaddafi and promote democracy on the continent. It was a good speech, but the power cut out in the middle..leaving the hall in semi-darkness and Clinton spotlit by the small light on the podium..

Then we rushed back to the PM's office where Clinton was due to meet Meles. We were waiting around for the press conference when Philippe, Clinton's media guru, came out and told us there had been a change of plan": because of a volcanic eruption in Eritrea, we had to leave NOW to get out ahead of the volcanic ash cloud. There was a mad scramble back to the hotel, where Clinton had some rushed meetings with the Sudanese, and then back to the airport.

Weirdly, we headed for Dubai -- the plane needed to refuel, and apparently couldn't do that anywhere else. No one really understood why, but the detour took us five ours in the wrong direction. Along the way, we were told that we were then going to head to Rammstein Air Base -- and might have to hang out there for 15-24 hours because of the crew's need to get required rest. This went over like a lead balloon..we were all so tired, and the prospect of another 8 hours to Germany and then 15 hours at an air base before we could even head home was pretty grim.

We arrived in Dubai at about 3 a.m. their time, and after some persuading we got them to let us out onto the tarmac. It was hot and sweaty, but at least we could stretch our legs....but after a while we were told that, in fact, the plane had a flat tire and the spare was deep in the hold..behind all the bags. The crew would have to unpack the entire plane to get at the tire, which would take hours.

After a bit of back and forth, it was decided that we would stay in Dubai. The U.S. consulate scrambled people and they managed to book us rooms (amazing, given the hour)...and we finally checked in at around 5 a.m. I took a shower and was in bed and asleep within five minutes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dar es Salaam June 12-13

We flew from Lusaka to Dar on Saturday, and arrived back into sticky weather. The hotel gardens were full of cycads and my favorite Bismark Palm -- a wonderful, bluish palm tree that actually gives shade, and which we first saw on Zanzibar a few years ago. I'd love to get one for Palm Springs, but I think the climate there is too dry...too bad, because it is a lovely tree.

Anyway we had the evening off, which was welcome -- ate at the hotel restaurant (not bad) and had a beer at the rooftop bar, which has a view out over the harbor.

Sunday was a busy day, highlighting the various U.S. development projects for Africa. We got in the motorcade and set out for a drive of about an hour to a women-owned farming cooperative outside of Dar es Salaam. It always feels a little funny to be whizzing past in the tail end of Clinton's motorcade while local cops keep the regular traffic bottled up. Huge lines of trucks, busses and taxis were idling by the side of the road as we went by, people clambering out to look at the parade. If it were me I'd be irritated at such a long wait just so a VIP can get to where she wants to go ... but the government is eager to promote this kind of aid, so off we went.

To reach the farm the motorcade eventually ended up crawling over potholed dirt roads, the vans wobbling and bobing as the drivers tried to slalom around the biggest craters. When we got there, Clinton got out and took a tour with some of the women who farm there -- producing vegetables to sell at the markets in Dar, as well as some for export.

There is something hilarious and incongruous about this kind of event: Clinton, in a bright orange pant suit, chatting with women African farmers while the whole official U.S. retinue swarms around. Tanzanian military in full SWAT gear were deployed around the edges of the fields, and all of the State Dept types were in full suit-and-tie under the broiling sun, punching away at their blackberries. The cavalcade moved slowly as Clinton picked her way down a dirt path, photographers running ahead (and trampling some of the seed beds) to get the picture.

The Prime Minister introduced her to another group of women as "Mama Clinton" which seemed about right for the circumstances -- she tried to engage them in a broader conversation but there wasn't much traction, although they did repeatedly break out in high pitched ululations to show their welcome.

She gave a speech under a giant shade tree, and then the motorcade was off again..back to a suburb of the city, where she wanted to highlight a U.S.-funded energy project which involved a power plant powered by jet engines. From there it was on to a clinic, where she took in a bit of amateur theatrics illustrating the threat of "gender based violence" and encouraged more work to improve maternal health.

She is clearly in her element with these stops (which makes you wonder why, as she says, she is NOT interested in the World Bank job) and you can tell her determination to highlight the the problems and challenges faced by women and girls at every stop.

For the journalists, tho, it was a little hard to find a lead for a story. The newly announced U.S. funding was not particularly big, and we didn't really have time to explore any one of the various we were left with a lot of comments about how the U.S. is committed to doing good in Africa, but no way to assess if it is really what is needed or wanted here...You can't do a "development" story in two hours, which is frustrating both for journalists and for the officials who want to promote this stuff. But I'm trying to keep my notes in order so that I can write a broader piece about the development side of the trip...maybe on the long flight on on Tuesday.

I'm writing this fast as I've got to pack to get my luggage to the "bag drag" in 20 minutes for this morning's flight to Addis. I'll update it if I can later..

Added the picture at the the top at the last minute..our last stop in Dar was at the Presidential Palace, where they had two of these "lions in a box" at the front entrance....

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lusaka, June 10-11

I am still having trouble adding pictures, which isn't surprising since I've been having a lot of technical problems on this trip: blackberry doesn't work, or works intermittently, computer won't hook up to wifi, etc etc. It makes for a frustrating time...

Anyway I've got a decent picture of Zambian dancers welcoming Clinton in Lusaka on arrival. It was great to be back in Southern Africa -- sharp, clear blue sky, warm sun but cooling off quickly at sunset, just a faint hint of smoke in the air. Felt like home.

But along with the technical issues I've also had to deal with another bump: my colleague Lesley Wroughton broke the story that Clinton was interested in moving to the World Bank. This is VERY sensitive...they don't want to be seen losing a secretary of state at this juncture, and it wouldn't be for months anyway as the job doesn't become vacant until mid-2012.

They denied it on the record, and then Clinton herself denied it in a press conference here in Lusaka. We had their denials in the original story, but the drumbeat of "no!" makes for some rough going. Still, I tend to believe Lesley before I believe the Clinton crowd. It would be a perfect job for her (everything we are doing on this Africa trip centers on development/health and women, which are her obsessions). But the politics are such that it will never be formally acknowledged until the official announcement.

But that makes me the "guy from Reuters" on the trip. It is fine -- I am sure we will be shown right in the end. And people are not being nasty, just a little jumpy. But that, added too the regular exhaustion of these trips, has made this feel like a long one.

I'm going to sign off now but will try to fill this out (and add the picture!) later

(Next Day) -- up early in Dar es Salaam, and somehow the picture uploads seem to work now. The dancers really were fantastic, and Clinton clearly loves being in Africa.

At the trade conference she was attending in Lusaka she was serenaded by a chorus of African businesswomen (!) -- lovely harmonies, and she got in there to sway and clap (a little off beat) with them. Makes you think the World Bank would be such a good fit!

Lusaka looked very tidy -- they spruced up a lot for the trade meeting and for Clinton, with clean streets, and all the trees freshly painted with their white "skirts" to keep the bugs off, making it all seem very tidy. We did one stop at a new pediatric hospital which the U.S. built and has donated to Zambia as a center to combat mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The speeches went on for ever ("all protocol observed" being a favorite phrase...even Clinton used it). I was nodding off but then this lady sat down in front of me with a terrific hair-do....makes me miss Africa.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Abu Dhabi, June 8-9

We are back at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi. I've got a picture of the infamous gold-nugget dispensing ATM ("Gold to GO") on my cellphone, but for some reason the file is corrupted and I'm too tired to try to figure out how to upload it now. If you see it I've figured it out at a later date!

Clinton is back in the Emirates for another "contact group" meeting on Libya. We flew in all night/day from DC, and arrived to the usual ferocious summer heat -- must have been close to 95 degrees at midnight, and the air thick with humidity.

When you arrive in Abu Dhabi they put all your baggage thru a special scanner on arrival..not for weapons, particularly, but more for any booze or porn you might have on you! I guess they are also looking for weapons, but the warnings were all about booze (people had to leave their duty free from Shannon aboard Clinton's plane).

Then the bus ride back to this ridiculous hotel, described in earlier posts. Not much to add except that, for a "$3 billion" hotel it is absolutely the most visitor unfriendly place I have ever seen...The staff is very attentive, but the place is just too damn big and all of the marble/chandeliered hallways look exactly the same. It is easy to get mesmerized walking around..and it always feels as though you are walking down the same endless hallway. The "public spaces" are equally gaudy and equally indistinguishable..which vast cavernous lobby? All very hard to tell.

The contact group meeting was in the hotel so I can say I did not go outside ONCE today..except to look out from my balcony this morning on the very elaborate pool outside. Even then it was ferociously hot...but they still seem to get tourists, from Europe or Russia or wherever. I guess it is sort of like staying at Disney World.

Not much to say about the conference (all behind closed doors) except that they came out determined to call it a success: more support for the rebel Transitional National Council, more vows of taking it to Gaddafi. We waited and wandered, found a few Libyan exiles, watched people waiting and wandering. Then, finally, a few back to back press conferences with the hosts, Clinton and others -- and the expected vows of support/aggression for the rebels and for Gaddafi. It feels like a play (and a not very interesting one)..everything scripted, and ultimately inconsequential...I guess until Gaddafi finally DOES go.

The big quote coming into the conference was that the conflict is in "end game" and time to plan for the future. But there were very few words on what the actual plan for Libya is. You have to think they'd be on this from the minute Obama made the decision to intervene..but there's not much public sign of it. Worrying.

The subtext to the trip has been the Internet scandal involving Rep. Anthony Wiener, whose wife is one of Clinton's closest aides. Everyone felt sorry for her and..when the news came from New York, quoting "family friends", that she is pregnant, we all refused to ask about it. Maybe that's cowardly, but somehow it didn't seem appropriate or important at 2 a.m. in Abu Dhabi where the poor woman is just trying to do her job. Let Wiener talk about it.

That's it -- am tired. Will try to figure out the picture tomorrow..maybe in Zambia, which is our next stop!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nuuk, May 11-12

Where is Nuuk and why would you go there? Well with Clinton there's always a reason...and we are here in Greenland's tiny capital for this year's meeting of the Arctic Council

It actually is a fascinating story: climate change is accelerating most quickly in the Arctic, and retreating ice and snow are both threatening polar bears and other Arctic species as well as opening up new shipping channels and vast areas for potential oil and gas development.

The Arctic Council is a sort of half-hearted (at least thus far) attempt to regularize cooperation among the Arctic countries, and Clinton came to show that the United States -- which has its own oil and gas claims -- supports this idea.

We flew from DC for about four hours to Greenland's main international airport. I'm not going to try to spell it here, but the airport is all there is. It is a former U.S. base and has a relatively long runway, big enough for Clinton's plane. There we transferred to a military C-130 propeller plane for the 45 minute ride to Nuuk. There was some touch-and-go about whether we would actually make it..the C-130 has to physically see the runway to make a landing, and there was heavy fog. But they "found a hole" as they say and we went in -- strapped into "net seating" along the sides of the plane's bare interior hull (Clinton and the officials got real seats up front..but still sort of roughing it). The inside of military planes always takes me a little by surprise -- all of the cables and widgets and levers that are covered up on commercial planes are left exposed, and the whole thing has a sort of jerry-rigged feel to it.

We got into Nuuk and then headed into town -- maybe two stoplights and a population of 15,000. It looks bleak -- absolutely treeless, snow covered jagged rocks, and Danish-style public housing, some modern some not. The people look largely Inuit, but the bus system is pure Denmark -- beautiful brand new yellow buses. Because there really are only a couple of hotels in Nuuk, we were put up on a boat -- another name I won't try to spell. It was fine -- I think it usually serves as a small tour boat to go up the fjords. Had my own cabin, with its own shower and bathroom even.

Parts of Nuuk look lovey -- they've painted some of the older buildings light pastel colors. But there are some ugly new buildings and the whole place feels crouched very close to the ground. I can't imagine what it is like in the winter months when the sun hardly shines.

It was still light but 10:00 at night, which made for sort of a strange feeling. We went into town for dinner but most of the places had closed. We ended up at Greenland's only Thai restaurant (named, endearingly, Thai Porn -- WOOPS see correction below) where real Thai people serve up quasi-Thai food to people who live most of the year in the darkest of winter. One option was whale sushi but I didn't go for that.

We went to the local "BrewPub" afterwards, where the main activity of Nuuk at Night was on display: drinking. People were extremely, horrendously drunk. Not nasty, but also not really able to stand up straight. The Danish bartender said it was that way pretty much all the time.

This morning we left early to accompany Clinton and the other foreign ministers on a tour of one of the local fjords. It really was a remarkable hour or two...completely empty, these great white snowcovered mountains on either side, black cold sea water and the occasional iceberg. We went out to a spot where you can see the glacier at the top of the island -- it is slowly melting, like everything else, but the Summer waterfall has not really started. Clinton and the foreign ministers did a sort of impromptu press conference on the boats..they were on one, the press was on another and the security guys were on a third. We were all sort of bobbing around next to a huge frozen waterfall....surreal.

And an added bonus in Nuuk? Santa's Mailbox

We are now at the Nuuk conference center where the council is meeting. We all already know what the results will be -- a new search and rescue deal for the arctic nations, a pledge to get serious about preventing oil spills. That story is pretty much written, but Clinton did have some pretty strong comments about Syria so that was another story.

After this we fly back to the main airport, get back on Clinton's plane, and should be back in DC by 10 p.m. or so -- amazing 30 hours.

BONUS !! -- I'm adding a complaint letter which corrects my description of the restaurant's name and takes issue with my general attitude toward Greenland (which is funny because I actually came away loving Greenland. But perhaps it didn't read that way). Anyway, herewith the letter:

Hello Mr. Quinn,

I am truly sorry – mostly for you yourself – that your experience in Nuuk, Greenland had such a negative impact on you.
Well, that’s your view – your problem, and I don’t bother to argue about this.

But for the sake of good order, and in the interest of just a little fairness, I do have to inform you that the Thai restaurant you visited (or did you?) is not named “Thai Porn”, but Restaurant Charoenporn.

The important difference is that the name of the restaurant means “Path of Life”, in Thai that is, and not as you suggested something more dark & dirty.

The staff is of 15 dedicated, highly skilled professionals; all Thai, and most of the staff has been with the company for more than 10 – 12 years.

PS; Excuse my poor English; but then again, you don’t speak Thai nor Danish or Greenlandic, and probably not even German or French.
And cant even get the name of a restaurant right !

PPS; just another bonus info; prostitution does not exist in Greenland !

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

London March 29

Clinton flew into London last night for today's international conference on Libya. The timing was a little tough -- NATO has only just figured out how they are going to take control of "the mission", and Obama was due to make his big televised Libya speech to the nation on Monday evening.

We left in the morning and flew through the day, arriving at around 11:45 p.m. at Stanstead airport. This is a long way out of least 1-1/4 hours by van. But it was late and there was nobody on the road. About halfway through the drive everybody received the White House email of Obama's Libya speech and started to read it immediately on their blackberries. By the time we arrived at the hotel the speech was over.

We are staying at a Marriott next to Hyde Park. When the daylight came you could look out over the park and see the silhouette of the "Gherkin" building in the distance through the trees. And the red double decker London buses whiz past. We sat up for a while taking to the head of disaster coordination for USAID (who is here to help with planning for the humanitarian relief effort that everyone expects to start once the fighting ends). He was just finished dealing with the Japanese tsunami/meltdown -- and worried that Congress is going to halve his budget next year despite the string of catastrophes that seems to unfolding around the world.

Up this morning early for a "background" briefing with a "senior administration official" -- nothing new in it, but at least some fresh quotes to start the day. These set-piece conference news stories are always sort of a drag: there are rarely any surprises, there is almost no access, and there is a lot of waiting.

We moved over to the conference center around midday -- whizzing past Buckingham Palace just as the guard was changing -- and took our seats in another cavernous room half full of people batting away at their laptops. We now await Clinton's "intervention" (code for 'speech') at the conference, and then her press conference later in the day. After that, we head back to the plane and home.

Speaking of the plane, here's a photo. It is pretty much the view we always have (in fact, for me, better than normal -- I pulled one of the "business class" seats in the seat lottery). It feels as though everyone spends a lot of time on this plane...reading, sleeping, just sitting and watching the flight map move VERY slowly. When I get home tonight I will have flown across the Atlantic four times in 9 days.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Paris March 18-19

The State Dept put together this on Friday as a last minute trip -- and must have been exhausting for Clinton, who only arrived home from Tunisia on Thursday! With things moving on Libya very quickly and Obama due to visit Brazil himself on Saturday, he sent Clinton back to Paris to represent the U.S. at a "summit" called by Sarkozy to discuss the next steps on Libya.

It was very unclear all afternoon how this would work and whether or not she would take press with her. As a matter of principle we want to be on these trips, but it is a little nervewracking to be sitting in the office at 5 p.m. and not knowing whether you are going or not in a couple of hours.

In the end, we were going -- so we all went back to the State Dept at 8 p.m. to get the shuttles out to Andrews. Clinton arrived about an hour later, looking tired, and then the 8 hour flight to Paris.

We arrived at 11 a.m. local time, and the conference was due to start at 1 p.m. We ended up at the ambassador's residence, parked in a side room, while Clinton got it together and went to the Elysee Palace for the closed door meeting. There was a lot of waiting around -- we never knew if were were going to get her statement, and what it might say. Obama had laid out the rationale for U.S. involvement in the effort to enforce the latest UN sanctions on Libya, but there were still real questions about when and how. Meanwhile the news coming in from Libya itself was increasingly dire as Gaddafi's troops pressed ahead against the rebels in Benghazi.

Sarkozy has been a big hawk on Libya and when he came out to make his statement it was to say that French Mirage fighters were already "in action" over the country. Clinton came back and talked to us afterward and again stressed Washington's line that it is not "in charge" of this operation but is merely supporting its allies (and the Arab countries that had signed up..Qatar and UAE) in their enforcement effort. It all seemed sort of plausible until about two hours later when the Pentagon announced something like 120 cruise missile strikes on engagement?

We could only catch glimpses of Paris, a few of which are here. There was the lady walking her dog with its own fur ruff, and then I found (again) the crazy Dior headquarters with its equally crazy men's fashion. A friend pointed out that this outfit might be something Gaddafi himself would wear -- Dictator Elvis, By Dior. We went out for dinner on Saturday night to a place recommended nearby. INTERMINABLE wait once we were seated (like 50 minutes!) for a waiter to come by and there were several moments when we felt like it was just the French putting us on...are they really THAT un-service oriented? When the guy showed up he was nice enough tho, and we had to admit the food was excellent. I had a beautifully cooked but not too big piece of beef (compared to the giant cheapo American porterhouse) and some fried goat cheese....excellent!

Perhaps because this was a last minute trip, the hotel was different from the big box glass Hiltons or whatever we usually stay in (also because Clinton herself flew back to the U.S. on Saturday night, so they didn't have to worry about security). What we got was a very nice, very comfortable old hotel complete with creaky central elevator (2 person maximum). My room was on the 7th and top floor and sort of under the could open the full window and look out over the courtyard and the nearby roofs....seemed ideal.

This morning I got up a little early to take a walk on what was a brisk but beautiful sunny Sunday morning. These are the kinds of moments that make these trips..I was alone in Paris, and there was hardly anybody on the streets. I walked back past the Champs Elysees and all the beautiful buildings of old central Paris, across the Seine, got a good view of the Eiffel felt, briefly, like I was actually IN Paris!

Then back to the hotel, back on a bus, back on the plane, and back to DC. We'll see what happens next.