Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kosovo-Zagreb-Tirana Oct 31-Nov 1


I am writing this a little late -- two days after our return to the U.S., so the details are already a little foggy.

From Belgrade we went back to Kosovo. No stops at the Bill Clinton statute this time: it was a quick overnight, with some morning meetings and then on to Croatia.

Pristina is a gritty little place, one of those cities where the air is grey and you are not sure if it is mist or pollution. But the Kosovars are obviously immensely proud of their achievement, and Clinton is still a sort of national heroine. In the morning, she met with the Kosovo PM -- a giant man, former freedom fighter -- who has taken the risk of agreeing to EU-mediated dialogue with his Serbian counterpart. She and Ashton both praised him for his courage (obviously there is a political risk for both sides to this dialogue) and promised that the U.S. and the EU would stand with the young country as it seeks to prise open the door to EU membership.

From there we went to a Serbian church, where Clinton was to meet with representatives of the Kosovo Serb community, much of which was displaced during the independence war and is only now starting to trickle back. The church itself had been burned almost to the ground in ethnic rioting in 2004, and her visit was meant as a clear signal both to Kosovo and to the Serbs that the United States would be watching closely to see how the Serbs are treated in the new political dispensation. The meeting was behind closed doors so we didn't get much color out of it, but it was interesting to look at the church where security was heavy -- there were even guards standing in the small graveyard out back.

Then on to Croatia. Compared to the other countries we visited, Croatia definitely seemed to be a part of the "West". Zagreb is a pretty city, with an old downtown and lots of street life. They are already in NATO and getting into the EU next year, so Clinton's visit was meant to highlight the country as a Balkan Success Story and a model for the other countries in the region.

We waited while she had meetings with the foreign minister and wandered around one of the old town's main squares. There was a tiny three-man protest at the church opposite -- "Hillary Go Home" and "Down with U.S. Oligarchy". The protesters, a trio of elderly gents smoking cigarettes -- were being watched by about five or six heavily armed Croatian policemen, and the whole thing had a slightly Kafka-esque absurdity to it. When Clinton finally emerged and the motorcade left, the protesters lumbered to their feet and waved their signs with whatever energy they could muster. Seems as though that particular revolution has already passed them by.

From there we went to a presidential guesthouse up in the hills -- a beautiful modern building set in the forest. Here Clinton did her only real press conference of the trip, where she laid out a new U.S. policy on the Syrian opposition, ditching the ineffective Syrian National Council and calling for more inclusion of groups doing the actual fighting on the ground. It was a significant shift, and a little difficult to handle sitting on folding chairs in Zagreb, but we managed to get the initial news out and when we returned to the hotel I was able to write the story through with more context. It felt satisfying to (finally) have some real news to deal with!

That night we set out for a good dinner, which involved a walk through the center of town and then a trek down some very dark roads. It was a lot longer than we had anticipated, and at times it felt as though we were walking deep into the countryside. But we finally found the restaurant which was as advertised: extremely good, and not too expensive. Mission success.

The next morning it was up early and on to Albania for a few hours. I can't really say I saw much of Tirana, as we shot through pretty fast. Clinton did give a speech at the Albanian parliament, where she called on them to get serious about fighting corruption which apparently is a huge problem. Not much news there, though, at least for international consumption. Then back on the plane, short stop in Shannon, and home.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sarajevo-Belgrade Oct 30


We woke up in Sarajevo yesterday and, thankfully, had a bit of time in the morning before Clinton began her official schedule. There was still snow on the ground, and you could look out between the buildings and see the snow-covered mountains ringing the city -- where the snipers used to be. Really amazing to think of what that place and those people have been through. There is some new building in town, so a few big glass boxes, but also a lot of old housing, much of pock-marked with bullet holes. No wonder it is still hard, less than 20 years after the war, for them to be pulling it together.

Clinton met up with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and they held a series of meetings with various UN officials, before sitting down with the three members of Bosnia's tripartite revolving presidency. Another legacy of the war, and one which must make executive action very hard to agree on. The message here, as it was the last time we came with Clinton two years ago, was that it was time for Bosnia's continual political crisis is putting it at risk of being left behind by its Balkan neighbors as they charge ahead toward EU and NATO membership. There just seems to be too much left undone, too many remaining arguments for the Bosnian leadership to really accomplish the economic and structural reforms that will be necessary, and Clinton and Ashton were clear that this is a danger. We spent the morning at the presidential office, and were finally herded in with hundreds of local journalists (how many TV stations can a country the size of Bosnia have?) for the final press conference, where they made their point. Given how central the whole Balkan story and Sarajevo was to the Clinton presidency, I think that Hillary feels a very personal connection with Bosnia and is worried and frustrated that the new country has not found its feet.

Then it was back to the office and on to Belgrade for three hours. Last time we spent the night, but this time it was just a brief stop on the ground -- or more specifically, a brief stop at the Palace of Serbia, an untouched 1960s Yugoslav era gem. The pictures I could take with the blackberry don't do it justice: the furniture, the sculpture, the brutalist carpets -- all straight out of Mad Men and completely unmolested. In one glass case there was an atomic clock, vintage early 1980s, which showed the ever ticking world populuation and the also increasing but now completely fictional population of Yugoslavia.

More waiting, this time in a sort of Security Council set up with a great circular desk where they must have held meetings. After the photo spray at the entry, all the local and foreign journalists piled back to this room to unload their gear. Then lots of local journalists appeared to disappear...? Where to? I had to find a bathroom so asked somebody and was pointed through another series of doors toward the back. The minute I walked through the men's room entrance it was clear: Here were all the local journalists, packed shoulder to shoulder, and smoking like lab rats. It was a hilarious scene: men, women, just chatting as if in a crowded nightclub under a huge and disgusting cloud of cigarette smoke. More and more piled in ... Serbia clearly either hasn't received or just doesn't care about the health warnings.

After waiting for a while back in the circular room, we were taken to the press conference -- just statements this time, no questions. The message was largely the same: Serbia has to work out its kinks with Kosovo if either country is going to make it into the EU. Then back to the vans, a brief stop at a hotel for Clinton to say hello to embassy workers, and back to the airport for the one hour flight to Pristina.

A final view of the palace interior -- doesn't do it justice, but it was room after room of this stuff. A real collection. I hope they don't "modernize" it at some point!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Algiers Oct 29


We flew out on Sunday just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. We had been due to leave on Monday, but as the weather reports grew increasingly ominous were told to be ready to move earlier -- and I'm glad we did. By the time we made it to Andrews on Sunday afternoon it was already blowing pretty hard, and it was a pretty bumpy departure as we skitted out just before the first waves of the storm hit.

That put us into Algiers at dawn. Its a strange place -- it looks both rich (lots of new highway construction) and poor (lots of hardscrabble apartment blocks), which I guess it is. It's got a lot of gas income, but the proceeds are very unevenly distributed. It is one of the North African countries where the "Arab Spring" never quite made it, and the security presence is high.

We went first to the hotel, where we checked in for the night at 7 a.m. That was enough time for a couple of hours of sleep, which was much needed. I kept on waking up thinking I was hearing children screaming ... it was both weird and unsettling, and I couldn't figure out of I was dreaming or what. When I finally did wake up I looked out the window and there was an amusement park next door, with all the rides going full of (presumably) happily screaming children. That was a relief.

We checked out again around 11 a.m. and the motorcade departed for Clinton's meetings with longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algiers is set on a series of hills overlooking a lovely Mediterranean bay. The way up to the presidential guesthouse takes you through some pretty plush neighborhoods, with grand old palazzos built to overlook the sea. Unfortunately there are also a lot of very ugly concrete buildings built up in front of the palazzos, so the effect is sort of ruined. But the guesthouse itself was lovely and really gave you the feeling of being in a sort of movie version of North Africa.

Clinton went in for her meetings, which were aimed at getting the Algerians to sign off on a potential plan for foreign intervention in next-door Mali. Since a lot of the Islamist insurgents now operating from Mali were originally kicked out of Algeria, they are not too eager to see the process reversed. But Clinton pressed hard and, from what officials told us afterwards, its seems as though there might have been some movement. We can expect to see more U.S.-Algeria cooperation in the future ... all filtered through what officials call "the security prism" which at times seems to yield a pretty distorted view of things.

After waiting around in a meeting room we were hustled outside. Clinton had not wanted to make any comments in Algeria, but the Algerians were determined, and when she emerged from the guesthouse there was a microphone and a horde of local TV crews hemming her in. There was no way to escape it, so she smiled gamely and made some fairly innocuous comments. Its one of the first times I've seen a foreign country effectively force her to speak in public, but it goes with Algeria's reputation of being a tough operator!

From there we went to another beautiful Moorish building, where Clinton had lunch with the president. We were also fed -- ushered into a huge holding room where there was what looked like a banquet set up. Tables lined with dozens and dozens of chairs, each with two little boxes (one salad, one chicken) topped by a full-sized baguette. It looked both odd and a little obscene, but it was nice of them to do it. Apparently this is exactly what the press was given the last time in Algeria, so they've got it down. I ate some of the baguette and struggled with my computer .... the aircard connections were frustratingly slow.

After about an hour, it was off again back to the airport. And two hours later we landed in Sarajevo, where it was snowing and cold. Once we got to the hotel (sort of suprisingly, no alcohol at all is served here which makes us think it must be a Saudi chain) we all rushed to our rooms to check on what Sandy was doing back home. Sounds as though DC escaped the worst of it, but pretty hairy all the same. Glad to be here although I hope our house made it through unscathed. Today we are looking at a long one: three countries (Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo) and a lot of scrambling in and out of vans.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Caracol, Haiti Oct 22


Back from another lightning trip -- this one to Caracol, Haiti, where Clinton was due to preside over the opening of a new industrial park as part of the broader post-earthquake reconstruction.

It was a long day. Up at 5 a.m., have coffee, drive down to the State Department, meet the crew at 6 a.m. or so, then out to Andrews and on to the plane. It was a small crew of journalists, but we still didn't get any good seats. Along with Clinton, the Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was with us, as was Senator Patrick Leahy and the head of the IDB. We knew Bill Clinton was going to participate in the event, but as it turned out he went down separately ...

We arrived at the newly-expanded airport at Cap Haitien. They lengthened the runway to accomodate bigger planes (both for trade and tourism) but they obviously didn't lengthen it any longer than necessary -- we came to a screeching stop.

From there it was off to the new development area. It is about 20 miles from Cap Haitien, and people were out along the route waving at the motorcade. From the van windows it certainly looked like a West African scene -- same ads for barbers, lots of places to collect overseas remittances, little corner stores.

The first stop was a new housing development that they are constructing to accomodate workers at the new plant. There were row after row of neat little concrete houses, set out in the middle of nowhere. The had painted them up in pastel colors, and the houses looked functional if tiny. But there was no escaping the "public housing" vibe -- it looked alot like the RDP houses in South Africa -- no trees, houses extremely close together, and nothing else round except construction and empty fields. We were told that a lot of the people who would take over the houses had been displaced by the earthquake and had been essentially camping out with friends and family, so maybe it will look inviting to them. But it looked sort of bleak to me.

After that it was onward to the Caracol industrial plant. Its anchor tenant is Sae-A, a Korean garment manufacturer, and you could see some of the (mostly female) workers strolling around in bright colored smocks. There are several large hangar-style buildings, one housing the Sae-A workshop and others ready for other businesses. The hope is eventually it will provide 20,000 jobs, which would be a major boon for the region where joblessness is a major problem.

So Clinton arrived, met the president, and then went in to talk to a special "investors" group that had also arrived for the ceremony. It was funny to walk into their luncheon -- a small room, a few tables, and there's Sean Penn, Richard Branson, Donna Karen, Ben Stiller, Bill Clinton ... a lot of star power.

Clinton spoke, President Martelly spoke, then it was out to have pictures taken with the Sae-A workers. She and Bill toured the plant, and then went to another building where they were doing the formal inaugration ceremony. It was HOT...I had sweated completely through my shirt, and didn't think I could expose that by taking off my jacket so I just quietly melted for an hour.

Then it was back to the vans, a quick swing by the new power plant they have built to run the park, and back to the plane and a (very bumpy) three hour ride home. I'm glad we made it back in time for the foreign policy debate at 9 p.m. but these one day trips really take it out of you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lima Oct 15-16


Just back from -- what, 24 hours? -- in Lima, Peru. The 2nd Obama-Romney debate is on, so I'm a little distracted.

This Peru trip was a lot different from the last one -- no pisco sours this time around! Clinton was due to attend a conference on women entrepreneurs in Latin America ...not exactly top of the news, but typical of her schedule these days.

Of course, the news kept rolling, and the main thing in the headlines this week remains the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. This has become a political football, with Romney and other Republicans blasting the Obama administration for what they say were security lapses and what they hint is an official cover up.

We rode for 8 hours in the plane and then down to Lima..a huge, sprawling and dusty (or at least grey-seeming) city surrounded by mountains. We went directly to the U.S. embassy, where Clinton gave her usual stump speech to the employees. After that, she was sequestered in another room for five separate network tv interviews. We had a sense there was something afoot...as of last week, the only people going on the trip were the wire reporters. But over the weekend the word went out that the networks wanted in, so all of a sudden the press group grew from 3 to 12 as we had ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox plus CNN plus camera crew.

I'm not sure why they all suddenly signed up. The word was that Clinton had looked at the manifest on Friday and wasn't happy that there were no TV folks along. So they all got promised interviews, as long as they would come along to Peru. So they did. These interviews are usually very repetitive and break little new ground. But this time Clinton did, when pressed by the CNN reporter Elise Labott, say that she "took responsbility" for the security around the Benghazi facility -- which, coming one day before the presidential debate, looked like an attempt to shield Obama from charges that he himself was responsible for what ultimately happened there.

So those of us (the wires) who were not in the interview were left scrambling. Elise gave us the quotes, but they were incomplete because the tape was still being fed and transcribed. We cobbled together something along lines of "Clinton takes responsibility" and then were waiting for the full quotes which were a long time coming. For us it was sort of an uncomfortable position to be in -- here we were in Peru, at significant expense to our news organizations, and we were still picking up a CNN interview.

We went to the presidential palace -- a wonderful palazzo in the central part of old Lima-- where Clinton was due to have dinner with the president. They met, and then came out for "remarks"..no questions. We decided that it was worth shouting a question to Clinton to see if she would give us something similar to what she did CNN. It fell to me to do the shouting, and it didn't work -- she smiled, said "later", and walked out. So we had nothing.

Back at the hotel there was lots of telephoning with Washington and working up a story with fuller quotes from CNN and later from Fox. The stories were all ok -- they reflected what she said -- but it was still frustrating because we had not got the quotes ourselves. But sometimes that is the way things work when you are on the road (not that that mollifies editors).

This morning Clinton took part in the conference on women...obviously very dear to her heart, but not newsworthy. And then we went to Peru's garment district, where she toured a new market and met the local contestants for a Project Runway-style show. It was a brief moment in , the real Lima, and I wish I had been able to take pictures of the buildings across the road from where she did her tour -- floor after floor of glass windows with female dummies in very elaborate dresses. In amongst the dummies were some of the workers in these shops, waving. It was a great image and a little surreal, but I didn't get the shot. Instead here's a picture of Clinton talking to some of the folks there.

After that Clinton's folks put out some canned quotes which essentially repeated what she said last night. I sent those on to Washington to get wrapped into the debate story, and then we got back on the plane. 9 hours later, I'm home and the debate is on.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

UNGA Sept 24-28


So, another UNGA done. This one felt longer than most, but the basic outlines of the U.N. General Assembly week are the same: run, wait, wait, file, run, wait etc. And don't forget to go through security at every possible opportunity.

Clinton's schedule was heavier than usual this year, because Obama only came for one day, leaving her to meet with lots of the visiting presidents etc. These meetings are carefully staged, and almost never vary: the press is screened by security (with dogs), and then taken up in a service elevator at the Waldorf. Once we reach Clinton's floor, we wait in the holding bay of the service elevator -- often with large mounds of towels, push carts loaded with dirty dishes, whatever -- until they are ready. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, so you get to know that windowless holding bay pretty well.

Once the "go" signal comes thru, we are marched -- no, run -- through the hallway down to the room where Clinton and the visitor are. The cameras go first, set up quickly, and the print press follows. Clinton and the visitor stand (or sometimes sit) in front of their flags, exchange a few of the most banal comments imaginable, and then a State Department handler says "thank you folks" as a signal to the press to get pushed out the room. Head back to the service elevator, back downstairs, and you're done. Until the next one.

It's a questionable use of time for most of us, but that is what UNGA is about, at least when you are covering Clinton. Sometimes she will make a statement (she did, for instance, urge "cool heads" in the China Japan island spat) which will make for a story. But other times we just have to wait around until we get a "read out" from the State Department spokeswoman on what was discussed. Usually it is something along the lines of "wide ranging discussion of issues of common concern" which is kind of hard to get excited about.

That said, I feel like I had a lot of stories. Clinton meeting the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda to tell them to sort out out their border war, Clinton meeting the president of Libya after the Benghazi attack, Clinton meeting the new Islamist president of Egypt, Clinton hosting a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" contact group, etc. Incremental stuff, but it made the wire so it wasn't a total waste.

UNGA is also strange because you are rarely outside. We all stay in hotels as close to the Waldorf as possible, because the schedule can run late into the evening, and so your only glimpses of New York are a few blocks of Lexington Avenue and then a few more blocks down 46th Street to the U.N. Headquarters. The whole place is doubly surreal because of all the security, the motorcades, and the roadblocks...

But still you can manage to have some decent dinners (if very late), and feel that you are in the center of the diplomatic world, if only for a week. But I'm glad it is only one week a year!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Vladivostok Sept 8-9


We are in Vladivostok, sort of. We are actually on "Russky Island" (no joke), which used to be a naval base and which the Russian government is making over. And we are only sort of on Russky Island -- we are actually in APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, with no way to get out.

You can see Vladivostok just over the gigantic suspension bridge (the largest of its kind in the world), but where we are feels as though it could be any place: they are holding APEC at a brand new Russian university, which has the look and feel of a California junior college. We are staying in brand new dorms, the conference itself is taking place in the brand new convention center. But that's it -- they've got the entire island on lockdown so we can't actually get out to see anything.

Our arrival at the airport was cool -- they taxi'd Clinton's airplane to the corner of the airfield where all the national delegations had parked their planes, so when you walked down the stairs to the tarmac you were in a huge parking lot full of 747s all marked with national flags. The richer countries (Japan) bring two. It made Clinton's little plane look pretty insignificant.

But after that, we've been stuck. So we meander around here. The buildings don't look like they will age very well, and all have a sort of submarine interior construction with metal beams running along the bottom of doorways, I guess for fire suppression. But it means that you are constantly tripping and stubbing your toe. They also have one of the wackiest elevator systems I've ever seen -- the buildings are set into a hillside, and all the floors have two numbers (one counting from the ground level, one counting from the third level where their backdoors are). So if you want to go to the 6th floor, sometimes you press 3 and sometimes you press 6. Also a lot of the hallways don't connect, so you've got to go back into the elevator in the next wing where the numbering is totally different. It makes for a lot of confusion.

But that said, the accommodations are fine and the Russians have put themselves out to make things work -- there are big buffet spreads (although we are hearing tales of food poisoning) and lots of coffee. Last night they had a welcoming reception where the vodka flowed. So no commplaints.

This set-0piece events involve endless waiting around. Clinton has had round robin meetings with most of the Asia Pacific leaders, and in each case the press is herded in for the photograph of the handshake, and then hearded back out to wait another hour for the next one. We get almost no information about what is going on behind the closed doors.

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This can be frustrating, especially when other delegations are not so cautious with the news. Yesterday we had some very vague comments from a "senior State Department official" describing Clinton's meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. This was pretty thin gruel, but we made the most of it. Then two hours later Lavrov himself spoke to Russian journalists, on the record and in detail about what said to Clinton. So the story ended up looking ridiculously unbalanced, but that is all we had to work with. It can be interesting to see how these tactical decisions about how to "manage" the news flow can either work (as they did for the Russians) or not work (as for the Americans in this case).

And that, I'm afraid, is that. We are waiting around now while Clinton has more meetings, then we head into the city for a brief stop off at the consulate where she will do a press conference -- so at least we will see something of Vladivostok. Then it is back on the plane for the 14 hour journey home. I'm ready.

Here's a final view of the bridge at night -- they have it rigged up with a massive lighting system which is wonderful, but hard to capture on a blackberry camera.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bandar Seri Begawan Sept 7


The Sultan of Brunei's official palace (at least the one that we saw) looks pretty much like the Washington DC Convention Center -- only with more neon.

Brunei is a small place, but at least in terms of housing the sultan thinks big. We drove over from the hotel in the evening. Clinton and her top officials were to have dinner with the sultan, but we were allowed to come along to cover their initial meeting. Most of us went, not because of any news value but because we wanted to see the palace.

Not what I was expecting. Instead of an Arabian Nights theme, or perhaps something Southeast Asian, the sultan opted for a 1970's Las Vegas shopping center approach. You drive up a huge entryway, flanked with blinking neon palm trees and centered on a row of huge pillars, also bathed in neon. The entrance looks sort of like an airport terminal, with hallways stretching back into the interior. Clinton and her team went in and we followed ...down the huge hall pictured above, to a series of escalators that go up to the second floor. Here the proportions shrank a bit, and Clinton was greeted by the sultan. They went into a nearby state dining room (no windows, as far as I could tell) and we went back downstairs for our dinner. It was nice enough, but nothing special ... chicken, shrimp, etc....still, it was hospitable of them to give us anything at all.

Dili Sept 6


From China -- hypermodern and hyperrich -- to East Timor. Asia's newest country, the poorest by far in the region...it's a major change.

Getting here wasn't easy, at least it didn't feel easy. We left Beijing at about 10:30 p.m. after a long day. Everyone in the official party was eager to get out...I think the blunt rebuff that Clinton had received on the South China Sea had taken everybody a little by surprise.

But none of us was looking forward to another night on the airplane. It is tight quarters in the best of times, and night flights can leave you feeling both sleepless and trapped. I had equipped myself with eyeshades and earplugs, however, and settled in. It was a weird night: I never felt as though I was sleeping, although I suppose I must have.

At one point we hit an air pocket -- first time for me and not something I want to repeat. Suddenly the plane shuddered, and then the nose pointed down and it really felt like we were dropping. One of the flight attendants screamed out "oh my god!", which isn't something you want to hear, and there were great crashes as things got knocked about in the galley. I was gripping the arm rests and I think everybody else was too. There were more big jerks -- like hitting waves (of air, I suppose) -- and then another drop. Then, of course, it leveled out and calmed down. It couldn't have lasted very long but was pretty alarming.

So, tired, frazzled and unwashed, we arrived in Dili, East Timor. The place looks pretty from the air -- long coast, backed by sharp mountains. Dili itself is a tiny place (see the airport picture). I don't know much about the Timorese liberation struggle but it certainly looks like they are still picking up the pieces. We went to the ambassador's house, where they parked us outside by the pool. Of course nobody's blackberry was working, and while they had set up a mobile hotspot it was repeatedly overloaded. Made for some frustration as we tried to sign on and figure out what was next. Plus, it was hot. But on the plus side they were all very nice and had some wonderful coffee for us.

Clinton made the rounds for her official meetings. They had lined up school kids on the roads to cheer and wave flags, all wearing their uniforms. The effect was both cute and creepy -- Asia's newest democracy had ordered its youth onto the streets to salute Hillary. The official buildings are mostly Chinese built, and not much to look at. But the honor guard at the president's office was great -- see picture above. You really see that this place is on the edge of Indonesia and New Guinea.

Clinton also paid a visit to a coffee sorting facility. Coffee is Timor's second largest export (much of it going to Starbucks) and USAID is supporting the industry. She seemed to enjoy it ... chatting with the women who sort the beans, listening intently while the managers described the process. And finally having a cup herself. Afterwards she posed for pictures with the workers.

Then it was the PM's office, a news conference which didn't produce much, and back to the ambassador's house. We had been told we were only going to stay for 15 mintues or so, but it dragged on and on..why? We didn't know. When we finally did leave about an hour later we finally learned that they had stopped in to the ambassador's office to watch a taped verssion of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention...which he had probably given just as she was sipping coffee in East Timor. Later on the plane she couldn't restrain herself and pronounced the speech "great". Secretaries of State aren't supposed to talk domestic politics, but I guess she gets a bye in this case since it was her husband. Seems hard to imagine that all that political back and forth was going on in Charlotte while we were knocking around in Dili south of the equator...

We are now in Brunei, which is sort of a Gulf emirate in Southeast Asia. Colossal hotel, no alcohol, very rich. Tonight Clinton is going to the Sultan's for dinner and we are being allowed to tag along, at least to the palace. This guy used to be the richest man in the world (I'm not sure if he still claims that particular title), and the palace is supposed to be over the top. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Beijing Sept 5


If you are only in Beijing for one day, then today was the perfect day to do it. Bright sun, clear skies, warm and dry. Beautiful late summer day.

We got in last night, and Clinton went to the foreign ministry for her first meetings with Yang. We followed her there, and then came to the hotel. There were a few quotes to update the story with, but nothing much. The hotel is pretty fancy -- I have a two room suite, with two bathrooms and a very comfortable bed. That's great because tonight (again) I'll be sleeping on the plane.

This morning we gathered at around 9 and headed to the Great Hall of the People, where Clinton was meeting President Hu. Just as we were leaving they told us that the Chinese had cancelled her meeting with Vice President Xi (who will succeed Hu as China's top dog after a party congress this year). Lots of speculation on why this was...were they sending a political signal over her comments on the South China Sea? Was this some sort of snub? The U.S. wasn't saying but our bureau said they had heard he had also cancelled events yesterday, so perhaps it wasn't anything beyond a sick day or a bad back. Still, a little mysterious.

It was funny to be back in the Great Hall of the People. I remember it so well...the gargantuan rooms, the endless chairs lining the hallways, the giant Chinese landscapes on the wall. It is really a throwback to old China, and I feel like I spent a lot of time there, once, covering official meetings. And when you are in there, you feel like you ARE in old China: the same unsmiling security people, the same people in dark suits ghosting around, the same hush of power.

Because Xi had dropped off clinton's schedule, the press conference was moved up. It was a small room and not many reporters -- I guess the Chinese had limited it to American outlets. Clinton and Yang came in and said their pieces (Yang said his piece at interminable length). But the upshot was neither made news. They both restated their positions on various disagreements (Syria, South China Sea etc) all the while pledging that they would do more to cooperate and ensure "pragmatic and cordial relations.

I sent thru the quotes and some paragraphs, and the pros in the Beijing bureau turned it all into a story. By the time we got back to the hotel everything was basically done. That left time for lunch at DinTaiFung (the excellent Taiwanese dumpling place) and then back to the hotel to pack.

After debating a nap, I decided it was too nice a day, so went for a walk. Beijing is not much of a walking city, tho ... at least around here ...but it was still great to be outside and to gawp at all the money, cars, buildings and people. The mall across the street had the crazy English "essay" pictured above outside to let people know that Beijing is the home of drama.

After a bit of that, I had another brainwave and went back to the hotel to ask about a foot massage place. They steered me to a shop in the basement of a nearby mall which was perfect. You walk in, they take you to your own room with a huge recliner, and tell you to change into some Chinese pyjamas. Then a VERY STRONG young woman comes in and starts working on you -- mostly feet, with pressure points, but also arms, shoulders, and back. I won't say I didn't flinch a few times, because they really know where to dig in their thumbs, but it is also extremely relaxing just to sit there, drink Chinese tea out of a water glass, and watch Chinese TV soap operas (which now seem to feature troubled young CEOs and various other capitalist characters exclusively). I wanted to stay for the next show -- some kind of game show with the (English) name "Your Face Sounds Familiar", but sadly it the 90 minutes (!) were up all too soon.

Now I'm back at the hotel, waiting for our background briefing and then the overnight flight to East Timor...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Jakarta Sept 4


Well, it's a long road from Rarotonga to Jakarta -- or to anywhere.

The flight to Indonesia showed me how isolated the South Pacific really is..after 18 plus hours from DC, we faced another 15 hours. Flew across more of the Pacific, including New Caledonia where my father served in the Second World War. Two hour layover in Brisbane for refueling, and then out across the Outback for another 7+hour stretch.

Afraid from here on in the pace picks up considerably so these updates are going to be short. We got into Jakarta at around 7 p.m. and went straight to the Foreign Ministry where Clinton had her meetings. After about an hour and a half she and the Indonesian foreign minister (who, according to his bio, is my age and looks like a 60's Beatnik) came out and said their pieces on the need for stability and a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

We went back to the hotel and filed our stories. It was, at this point, about 11 o'clock so what to do...suggestion (as usual) was to meet in the bar, which in this hotel turned out to be the most astonishingly noisy and horrible dance club you could imagine. A bad cover band, interspersed with even worse techno, all delivered at ear splitting volume. Lots and lots of Indonesian ladies in very tight dresses and a smattering of dumpy Western guys. One beer and out -- and it was time for bed anyway.

This morning I did up a preview piece for the next stop in Beijing, and we are going to roll shortly for Clinton's meetings at ASEAN headquarters. Then, unhappily, another seven hour flight. But at least I have a good night's sleep under my belt not to mention a huge breakfast. I ate a normal hotel buffet breakfast and then realize that there was an Asian buffet on the other side of the room, so I went back and had a full Chinese dinner. The food was excellent, although I don't think I can handle back to back meals very often. The upside is we won't get much on the plane so hopefully I won't have set back the fitness program too much!

More, if time permits, from Beijing tomorrow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rarotonga Aug. 31


When Clinton's delegation for this week's meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the population of Rarotonga jumped by 5 percent.

The Cook Islands are a tiny country, and Rarotonga -- the main island -- can be circled on the main road in 45 minutes. Clinton's arrival has caused some logistical problems, such as forcing the gov't of the Cook Islands to borrow enough cars to make up her official motorcade. And, with just the one main road, the motorcade only has so many places to go: up and down the island, stopping at different hotels where different events take place.

It is such a change from most of the places we go! I'm sitting outside just before dawn, and there are roosters crowing all over the place. Just across the street is a stretch of absolutely pristine beach -- palm lined as advertised -- and the surf breaks further out on the reef that encircles the island.

It was a long trip to get here though. We left DC at around 10:30 in the morning, flew five hours to San Diego, and then flew on another 9 hours to get to Tahiti. There's something ridiculous about going to Tahiti and only staying for one hour, but that is what we did ...walking around on the airport tarmac as the plane was refueled and the French gendarmes kept watch to make sure we didn't try to sneak out into the island without passing immigration. After that, it was another three hours to get here ... finally arriving, about 20 hours later, at the small Rarotonga airport.

There were hula dancers to greet Clinton on arrival, but she avoided the more formal welcoming ceremony that other leaders got, which was to be raised on a litter by brawny Polynesian warriors and paraded around. I think her political people were just as happy there were no pictures of that.

Because there are so many of us and so few big hotels, we are spread out over a number of small guest houses. The press got a decent one -- clean, just across the street from the beach, no nonsense. It is absolutely fine and it does have a sort of tropical holiday feeling to it: no televisions, only intermittent Internet access, dogs and cats wandering around.

The island has two major bus routes: "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" and you pass lots of surf shops and mom and pop restaurants. We did go past one tiny building which advertised itself as the Cook Islands National Olympic Committee, but I wasn't able to get an answer on whether they actually had sent any athletes to London...

I took a morning walk on the beach, and then the day began: as usual, meetings, meetings and more meetings, but these all had a sort of relaxed vibe. The Pacific Islands Forum itself was held in what looked like a big indoor basketball court, and most of the other meetings were in various hotels. The whole point of Clinton coming here was to fly the U.S. flag in (yet another) region where China is making a big play for influence. Chinese money is building schools, hospitals, airport runways and government buildings across the Pacific, and apparently the Australians and the New Zealanders said it was essential for Clinton to come to show that Washington was still (as they like to say) a "resident power" in the Pacific.

Perhaps because she is going to Beijing in four days, Clinton was fairly measured on China in her remarks here: saying "the Pacific is big enough for all of us" and that the U.S. hopes to work more cooperatively with Beijing in development and maritime security projects in the region.

But China's approach is so different -- and often involves loans and grants that have virtually no conditions attached -- that it is hard to see how the Pacific Islanders will resist moving more closely into Beijing's embrace. There was also a senior U.S. naval delegation here, making the point that it is U.S. power which has guaranteed the freedom of the sealanes since the end of the Second World War. I don't think anybody anticipates a real brush up of Chinese and U.S. forces in the region, but the military dimension at the conference was interesting.

After more meetings, a press conference with the New Zealand prime minister, and a event on "black pearl" cultivation, we were finally finished. The Internet connectivity is so wobbly that it was almost impossible to file anything until the end of the day -- a headache in paradise, but given that it is Labor Day weekend at home and this is such a marginal story, I don't think anybody really noticed.

We had breakfast at the gas station next to the hotel -- where the same granny, with a flower in her hair, pumped the gas and fried up the eggs. The whole place has a very relaxed feel which is a nice change.

Today, amazingly, we are off. Clinton has no public events, and I think her team are just trying to recover from the long flight and prepare for tomorrow's equally long flight to Jakarta via Brisbane. But the press has decided to make the most of it and we are setting off for some snorkeling/diving this morning. The weather report had threatened rain, but the sun is up and it looks like it will be a fantastic day!

More later, probably from Jakarta.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Istanbul Aug 11


This is going to be short -- it is 3 a.m. in Washington and we've been going for 24 hours.

Quick trip to Istanbul after the Africa safari. These brief bites of Turkey really make me want to go back: seems to have the energy of China, in a Mediterranean setting of sea and trees and sun. Not that we saw much of that!

We got it at about 5 a.m from Ghana and headed to the hotel. I did sleep..maybe four hours? ... and then up again. As I was wandering the lobby of the hotel I ran into my old Nieman friend Holly Williams, who recently relocated to I'bul from Beijing. That was great - we had a quick lunch and caught up. Nice to see a friendly face from the past in this whirlwind!

Then Clinton had her press conference after her meetings with Turkish officials and Syrian opposition types. We'd been warned she wouldn't break new ground and for the most part she didnt, except that she did say (obliquely) that she had talked about a No Fly Zone with the Turks. This was presented as one of a number of options, and not immediate, so I put that in my first story, but the peril of wire service journalism is that editors far away will latch on to something and move it up, harden it up, and make it the lead. So our story went out quite strong on the NFZ, which altho accurate was sort of over emphasizing it. I had to scramble to try to tone the story down....and once I had done that with our Istanbul datelined story, I realized that the main Syria wrap had taken the hard lede from us so I had to start calling around to tone THAT down. Its hard because you want to get it right: they did talk about NFZ, which was news. But it wasn't as if they came out suggesting that was the next step (something which could give the Syrian rebels more hope than they should have at this stage). Stressful and lots of phone calls to London etc, but I think we got the right mix. I hope so.

After that we loaded into the vans to follow Clinton to a meeting with Turkey's president at his official residence. The embassy people had said there was nothing around in this suburban area, and that we would have to wait in the vans for up to two hours. But lo and behold we found a great place hardly 300 yards away: the "Secret Garden", a restaurant/wedding place/beer hall on the hill overlooking the Bosphorous. It was an ideal way to end the trip -- great, simple food (fantastic tomatoes, babaganoush, stuffed bell peppers, and this great fried cheese in philo dough concoction. The sun was up but we were in the shade, the breeze was blowing, the Turkish staff as nice as they could be. An hour to catch our breath and really feel -- briefly -- that we were in Turkey.

But that ended, and we were back in the motorcade and headed to the airport. Five hours to Shannon, an hour layover for Irish coffee, and then seven more hours to DC. I'm so glad to be home but this has been a fantastic trip! The South Africa part in particular was like a homecoming. Now I am going to bed so I can get up tomorrow and get the plane to Maine for a week off by the lake with Mom,Jim and Dog.

Final image: one of the views of the Bosphorous as we careened past in the motorcade on the way to the airport. Makes you want to go to Istanbul!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Abuja-Accra-Cotonou Aug 9-10


Well, pretty much as I feared – been to three new countries in the last 24 hours and I haven’t seen anything!

We flew from Cape Town to Abuja, Nigeria, where Clinton was to have talks with the president (the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan) about the security situation and Boko Haram. It was a six hour flight, and we arrived at sunset. It was hard to make anything out of Abuja at night, but you got the feeling there wasn’t much to see even during the day. Its another of these new, fake capital cities filled with office blocks and bureaucrat housing. The funny thing was it looked beautiful from the air: very green (it is the rainy season) and the landscape dotted with bulbuous round rock hills – some geological phenomenon.

We went to the president’s office, waited outside while she had her meeting, and then dropped by the embassy for the traditional “meet and greet”. The best part of the trip was the trip back out to the airport. A “Nigerian motorcade” is something out of the ordinary: they don’t block traffic from the roads, but simply (somehow) use police outriders to thread their way through. It caused huge traffic jams and lots of people were trying to jimmy their way into the motorcade along the way to get where they were going that much faster. Strange system, but we made it.

Then it was an hour flight to Accra, Ghana where we were to spend the night before the funeral of the late president. Because all kinds of grandees were in town for that event, we were put up in the airport Holiday Inn. Compared to some of the fancy places we have been staying this was upretentious, but it was also absolutely fine and we were exhausted.

The next morning Clinton went to the funeral without press, and we waited at the hotel and worked on our stories about her Saturday meetings in Istanbul. The dead president, John Atta Mills, had died unexpectedly about two weeks ago and the city was in full on mourning, with almost everybody wearing red and black. It was an impressive feat of color coordination, but the colors themselves looked sort of ominous when everybody was wearing them.

Clinton came back – after a long wait, because they all had to leave the funeral in protocol order. And we went back to the airport where there was another long wait on the tarmac while all the presidents’ planes left in protocol order. But finally we got out, about two and a half hours late, and flew an hour to Benin.

I wish we had a chance to look around. This place is famous as the home of the voodoo religion, and the capital’s name Cotonou means (at least according to Wikipedia) “Mouth of the River of Death”. But we are seeing very little. From the airport we went straight to the ambassador’s house where Clinton met the embassy folks, and now we are sitting at the presidential palace (a ferociously ugly structure) while she meets him inside. The only good bit is the presidential guard – like Togo, they are outfitted Broadway-style in green, yellow and red, with capes, caps, epaulets and swords. When we went in they were all ramrod straight on either side of the red carpet. But when we came out ahead of Clinton, they were all relaxed and chatting: some leaning on their swords, others with their caps on crooked, some with their capes thrown dramatically over their shoulders. They looked fantastic.

Hope she comes out soon because we have a six and a half hour flight to Istanbul ahead of us, and probably won’t get in much before sunrise at this rate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pretoria-Cape Town Aug 7-8


This is what I woke up to this morning: The Mother City. Great to be back!!

Yesterday was sort of a blurr. We spent the whole day in Pretoria, where Clinton had a series of meetings at South Africa's brand new foreign ministry building. Its am impressive site -- modern, African, looks a bit like an airline terminal. We were parked in a holding room while she shuttled from meeting to meeting.

It was a nice day, tho, because I saw a lot of old familiar faces. Talked a bit to Nick Kotch, who hired me for Reuters South Africa, and saw some other South African journalists that I knew from my time here. Felt like old home week. Clinton did hold a final press conference where the story was about Syria (and specifically her warning that external powers should think twice about supporting "proxies" or "terrorist fighters" as the conflict grinds toward end game).

After that it was off to the State Guest House -- one of my favorite buildings in South Africa, a real Cape Dutch confection -- where there was a gala dinner. We were invited to sit at one of the tables and what had threatened to be a dull diplomatic dinner ended up being a lot of fun. The South Africans had arranged one of their big singing stars, Judith Sephuma, as the performer and she belted out a lot of familiar hits: Pata Pata, Brenda Fassie's "Weekend Special", and others. She was dancing and the band was great, and pretty soon Clinton and everyone else was up on the dance floor. The whole place had the atmosphere of an off-the-hook bar mitzvah -- balloons over the table, strobe lights, a weird mix of people on the dance floor. The last song was "Shosholoza", that great South African anthem, and everybody sang while Clinton and the South African foreign minister and all the others at their table stood holding hands and swaying. A little over the top maybe but a fantastic way to end the day.

Because we were there as guests and the dancing part was officially "off the record" there was some consternation about whether the photographers and the video crew would be able to use their pictures of the party. But eventually Clinton's people relented and allowed us to report it: the pictures and video got big play and I think were probably a PR bonus for her (not that she needs it at this point).

After the two hour flight we arrived in Cape Town. The weather was warming (it actually snowed in Johannesburg the day we were there, a rare event) and the city even at night looked beautiful. We are staying at a very nice hotel down at the V+A Waterfront ... a bit removed from town, but I can't complain when I woke up to a perfect sea view sunrise (not to mention a groaning breakfast buffet).

Clinton visited a clinic in Delft, a township in the Cape Flats, where she signed a deal which will put South Africa in charge of more of its PEPFAR programming ... part of the broader effort to begin shifting the responsibility more to recipient countries. The folks on the street were sort of stunned to see Clinton's huge motorcade screaming past.

Then we headed to the University of the Western Cape, where she gave her big speech on South Africa. It was a good speech, if a little bit predictable: South Africa should be doing more to advance democracy and human rights around the world to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It was personal -- she talked a lot about her own reminiscences of Mandela -- and firm but respectful. The nice surprise was that I saw Phiwe, the South African student who we had hosted just a month or so ago for his DC summer internship. We talked a little bit but there wasn't much time but we are do to go out to dinner tonight.

I was back at the hotel by 2 p.m, finished the story by 3 and went out for a walk ... all the way up Long Street back to Kloof, where we used to stay when we visited. Cape Town always looks spectacular, and it was a spectacular day with the sort of flinty summer sunshine glare. I bought a few things, and walked back down to the hotel. We are supposed to meet Clinton for an off the record social this evening, and then dinner with Phiwe & Co. I could easily hang out here for a lot longer, but if it has to be brief at least it feels like it was satisfying.

I'm a little worried about the next leg of the trip -- when we set off from Cape Town tomorrow morning, it is going to be Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and then Turkey all in rapid succession. We'll see how it all works out!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Qunu-Aug 6


We got up early yesterday for the day trip to Qunu, Mandela's home village in the Eastern Cape. Because Clinton was taking a small plane, there were only seats for two pool press people -- myself and the AP photographer. I was grateful to my colleagues for letting me take the print seat. I wanted to close the circle on Madiba since our time in South Africa, and the trip was wonderful

We drove back out to Waterkloof, the air base outside Pretoria where Clinton's plane had landed. There we got on a "G5" -- a sort of executive jet, with about 12 seats. This one had been brought down from the U.S. Africa Command in Frankfurt just for the trip. It felt pretty swanky ... nice big seats, wooden paneling, and big oval windows. On the flight out we flew over central Johannesburg and had a great view, and then down across Lesotho where you could see snow on the Drakensburg Mountains.

We arrived at Qunu airport, which is a pretty tiny operation. There was a short little motorcade awaiting us, and we set off for the hour's drive to Qunu. It looks pretty much the same as the last time I saw it: rolling, tawny hills, houses dotted around including some rondavels. No trees, big sky, and the foothills of the southern Drakensburg in the distance. It looks a lot like Montana, except there are sheep and goats wandering around.

We pulled into Mandela's house at around noon. It is fairly new, and looks like a big comfortable suburban house which sort of stands out amid all the much smaller houses of the village. There was a brick wall with a gatehouse, and we managed to get up to the entrance just in time to see Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, welcome Clinton inside.

We had been told not to expect anything newsy, and not to expect access, so we thought the next few hours might involve just sitting in the car outside. But Mandela's people let us in and we were put in a holding room, along with some of the Mandela staff, and given tea and coffee. I saw Zelda LaGrange, Mandela's personal assistant, and said hello and she was very welcoming and said it was nice to see me back, which felt good.

After about an hour, we were told that the photographer could take some pictures. We were brought into the room where Clinton and Mandela (and a select group of their various staffers) were meeting with Graca. It was an odd feeling -- Mandela (who is 94 and clearly in failing health) was in a wingback chair in one corner, his feet up on a stool and covered with a blanket. He looked almost entirely immobile, almost like a waxwork, and did not speak.

There was lots of conversation among the others and lots of loud and cheerful comment from Graca as Clinton posed with Mandela, who after lots of jolly coaxing, managed a smile. We were then led back out and Clinton and Graca went in for lunch, leaving Mandela in the living room with his medical people. We were given lunch in another back room (samp and beans, mutton, salad -- it was good!) and ended up chatting to a bunch of uniformed guys who turned out to be Mandela's military doctors. Strange to sit at a table in Qunu talking about blackberries and FOMO ("Fear of Missing Out" ..apparently the peril if our interconnected age) with the guys who are trying to keep this legend alive for as long as possible.

After another hour or so, the lunch wrapped up and Clinton went back into to have tea with Mandela and say goodbye. At this point everything became very relaxed: people were moving in and out of the living room, Graca, who was coming back to Johannesburg with us, was bustling around getting her bags ready, and more pictures were taken. Mandela seemed a little more animated and smiled for more pictures. The AP photographer had helped out taking pictures of some of the staff with Clinton, and so she got her photo taken with Mandela himself..he smiled and waved for the camera..really something to save for the grandkids. I didn't, but that's ok -- it was just a very warm feeling to be standing in the room, watching everybody so happy and relaxed. You really got the feeling it was a family house. Clinton finally said her goodbyes, and we got back in the motorcade for the airport.

It was a fantastic chance to see the legendary man one more time. And it also felt good: he seemed well cared for, and happy in his own house. If anyone deserves it, it's him.

We were back on the plane (here's a picture to give a sense of what it looks like) and back to Waterkloof and the drive back into Sandton. I went to our bureau to talk to some of the guys: it felt pretty much the same as when I was there, albeit with a few new faces. The whole trip to Joburg has been eerie -- it really feels so much like home, I keep (almost) thinking that I could just hop in my car and drive home to Parkview, and resume my old life here. Of course that's not possible, but it is great to have it all feel so familiar. Makes me want to come back for a longer visit.

Today Clinton has a day of meetings in Pretoria, and then a nighttime flight to Cape Town. More from there.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Nairobi-Lilonwe Aug 4-5


This trip is moving pretty quickly, so some things are going to get short shrift. Nairobi is one of them. We flew in from Uganda, and Clinton immediately went to see the president, the prime minister, the chief justice, and the speaker of parliament -- visiting their offices in rapid succession.

We were placed in various holding rooms, so the day was pretty much in and out of the press van, in and out of featureless rooms, and not much to show for it. Later in the day at the hotel Clinton met with various leaders from Somalia, and gave a statement for the cameras saying she was encouraged by progress there. She also met members of Kenya's electoral commission, and made a statement for the cameras urging Kenya to get next year's elections right and avoid a repeat of the horrific bloodshed that occurred last time around.

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So I had two stories to write, but nothing terribly exciting. That night we all went out to "Carnivore", a Nairobi institution. It's sort of a kitsch African version of a Brazilian stakehouse -- the guys come around with great skewers of various kinds of meats (including crocodile, ostrich etc). They also periodically break out into song. It sounds cheesy and it sort of was but it was also fun and the food (or at least the meat) was pretty good. We all went back to the hotel and collapsed.

On Sunday we were up early for another busy travel day. The first stop was Malawi, where the welcome was terrific: a military dance team, in full uniform, was shucking and jiving as we got off the plane (see picture above). It was a nice first impression. There isn't much to Lilongwe -- its another made-up national capital -- but it has wide orderly streets and not much traffic. We went to State House, where Clinton met Joyce Banda, the former vice president who had faced down a leadership crisis following the death of the president and enforced her constitutional right to take the top job. Since then, she has been making changes as quickly as she can, ditching some of the weird policies of her predecessor, allowing the currency to depreciate, enacting an austerity budget, and winning back the donors who had stopped giving to the country (including the U.S.).

She's a former women's rights activist, and it was clear that she and Clinton got along well. They met for about an hour, and then we set off for the ambassador's house where Clinton was to do her usual "meet and greet" with the embassy staff and we were supposed to file. I had been having comms problems all day (my blackberry wasn't working for email in Malawi etc) and when we got to the residence they continued ... I couldn't get blackberry to work, my computer wouldn't find the wifi, etc. It is so frustrating when this happens, particularly when you don't have a lot of time to figure out what the problem is. I ended up calling up the bureau in Joburg and dictating the story -- not ideal, but at least it got it out there. But whenever my comms fail it makes me incredibly nervous: what if they don't come back? What if the computer is broken, etc. It's unsettling.

After that we went to a school where they had a sort of Girl Scout camp for young women, run by the Peace Corps. Clinton gave a good speech about reaching for the stars, etc, and then walked around the room and shook everyone's hand (about 150 kids in total). It was a nice gesture, and I think it showed how much Clinton really loves these events. From there, it was on to a "milk bulking" station where Clinton got a readout on efforts to boost Malawi's dairy industry.

The road out to this place started out pavement, but the last 10 km or so were dirt and it was very bumpy. It is funny to see the whole motorcade winding down a dirt road in the middle of the bush. Local people just stood there staring as we bumped and clanged past. When we got to the event, they had everyone decked out in bolts of USAID/MALAWI cloth -- used for turbans, skirts, over the shoulder etc. Its too bad the cloth itself was so ugly! Clinton got a quick tour, met a woman who explained why her family's cow was so important, watched someone test milk for freshness, and then gave another speech about U.S. assistance to Malawi. There was also a purebred U.S. dairy bull which the U.S.had given to the program humphing around in its pen. Weird. I wonder how many bulls the Chinese have given them.

Then it was back up the dirt road and back to the airport. Two and a half hours later we were in South Africa, where I am now sitting in a hotel in Sandton. This morning I am the "pool" press person for Clinton's personal trip to see Mandela in the Eastern Cape. They weren't sure we were going to get a seat so this is great, although I'm bed they don't let me in to see the man himself. But stay tuned for the next update to find out.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Juba-Kampala, Aug 2-3


We flew from Dakar to Kampala on Thursday morning. It was a funny day -- we left at 9 a.m., flew seven hours, and arrived at 7 p.m. thanks to the time difference. Nothing much accomplished news-wise. We went from the airport into the hotel (a long drive) had dinner and went to bed.

It's a good thing that we did, because we had a very early start on Friday. This was probably the longest/toughest day of the trip, and we were told to report to the motorcade at 7 a.m. That was just enough time to wake, up, get showered, make some coffee in the room, and peruse the latest on the Ebola outbreak.

Ebola is the kind of thing that gets a lot of press, particularly outside of Africa. But while the Ugandans were certainly concerned (they made you not only go through a metal detector to go into the hotel, but also squirted you hand sanitizer). But it didn't feel like a crisis and people weren't panicky. These things are pretty hard to contract unless you are in very close quarters with someone who is infected, and there had been no sign of it in Kampala.

By daylight Uganda looks very crowded. Kampala is a city spread out over a number of hills, and it was hard to get a sense of it but there were lots of people, lots of cars and lots of advertisements. In places like this Clinton's motorcade,with the enforced traffic stops for everyone else, must be infuriating for the local drivers. The drive out takes you through sort of suburban countryside -- again lots of people, some big new houses, some township/slums, and then toward the shores of Lake Victoria. It all looked very green and very very fertile. It must be banana harvesting season (or perhaps every month is banana harvesting season in Uganda) because there were trucks of bananas, guys riding mopeds with big bunches of bananas, bananas everywhere.

T

he flight from Kampala to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, only takes an hour but in every respect the places are different. Where Kampala was hectic and green, Juba was semi-deserted and brown (see picture at the top). Its the world's youngest nation and one of the poorest, and "capital" is a grand word for the fast expanding but still pretty basic settlement that is going on. But they have a new-ish airport and as we arrived a fleet of Land Cruisers pulled up to take us to Clinton's meeting with the president.

We honestly hardly saw anything except the inside of the presidential office building (which looked like a small-town Holiday Inn) and then a few streets of Juba. Some had lots of new building, some like the one pictured above were still just shacks and goats. It has the feeling of a wild west boomtown -- lots of people pulled in by the intrigue of this new country, both its possibilities and its dangers.

Clinton's meeting appeared to go pretty well. She came out and gave a press conference with the foreign minister, emphasizing that it was time for the two Sudans to put their dispute over oil revenues behind them, start pumping again, and avoid economic catastrophe for both. Her key quote was "a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing", which must ring true for a people who have fought decades for their own country.

With that, it was back to the airport and back to Kampala. Two hours in South Sudan doesn't leave you any wiser, but at least now I have a visual image of the place. It feels like everybody is hoping for the best, but there doesn't seem to be a lot to work with there.

In Kampala, we were using the old Entebbe airport, scene of the famous Israeli commando raid that freed hijacked airline passengers in the 70's. There are still bullet holes on the control tower, and apparently Israel's Netanyahu (whose brother was a lead commando and got killed in the raid) visits every once in a while to pay his respects. Otherwise it is now used as a VIP terminal.

The rest of the day was a blur. We went to the president's office where she had a meeting with President Museveni -- and apparently urged him to think about retirement -- and then to a military base where she watched a demonstration by U.S. and Ugandan soldiers of the U.S.-made drones that the Ugandan military is now flying over Mogadishu as part of the AU effort to turn back al Shabaab.

I'd never seen a drone before and it looks remarkably like a model airplane, fitted with several cameras in in then nose. There demonstration involved a team flying a drone over our heads, demonstrating how well it could make out surface features and people. Weird and spooky if you ask me, but Clinton seemed intrigued. She spent some time talking to the "pilots" and said she foresaw a day when similar drones might be used to hunt Joseph Kony, who is on the run in Central Africa.

After the demonstration one of the embassy guys told us that they did not want to "land" the drone when the TV cameras were on, because it was designed to split into pieces to avoid damage. They were afraid the TVs would make it looked like the thing crashed and burned.

From there it was on to a health clinic for more talk on HIV. After years of doing so well in the fight against AIDS, Uganda is now the only African country where prevalence rates are going up. Some experts put this to a lack of emphasis on prevention (and especially condoms), thanks to more conservative elements in society and religious types. And then back to the hotel to write the story (or stories in this case), and then to bed.

We've had a a full day in Nairobi today but I will try to get that into the next post. Tonight we are off to "Carnivore", a famous Nairobi institution where you get skewers of every kind of meat (Imapala, Crocodile etc).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dakar, July 31-Aug 1


This is the view I woke up to this morning. Dakar is on a spindly peninsula that stretches out into the Atlantic, so you get sea views almost anywhere you go.

We're at the start of a 7-country, 11-day trip to Africa. Clinton is doing this scarcely two weeks after she wrapped up her last marathon trip -- that one to Asia and the Middle East. She's already broken all kinds of official travel records, so I guess this grueling pace must be sheer doggedness (plus it keeps her out of the country during the presidential campaign, which might be a good thing).

The flight over from Washington is not as long as you might think -- only about seven hours. West Africa stretches well into the Atlantic, so its actually closer than a lot of places in Europe. Tomorrow's flight, from Dakar to Uganda, is also seven hours, which tells you how broad Africa is.

She's starting off in Senegal because they had a successful election in March that saw one of the old guard of African rulers sent packing (pretty much against his wishes). The U.S. wants to spotlight Senegal as a model for the kind of institutional, regular democracy they hope to see in other African countries. Clinton paid a visit to a U.S.-funded health clinic, and then gave a speech at one of Dakar's big universities. It as a good speech, but pretty similar to the one she gave at the African Union last year -- time for the old guys to get out of the way, the U.S. is a better partner for Africa than China, etc.

Surprisingly, after the speech (and a HUGE rainstorm) we are back at the hotel and her schedule is done for the day. They never would have done this in the old days...there was always another group of people to see, another project to inspect, another hand to shake, campaign-style. But perhaps now that she is in her last six months, they feel they can ease up a little.

I'm not complaining: I went to the gym! And now I am watching the Olympics with chattery French commentary, featuring frequent use of words such as "Voila!", "Hoopla!" and "Ai-yai-yai!" ...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Geneva June 30


Now at the Palace of Nations in Geneva. Got some sleep last night..not enough, but it will have to do.

Opening the curtains revealed a beautiful clear day outside, and a view straight across to the mountains. It is hot (for Geneva) here..upper 80s. There were some very 60's Swiss apartment houses opposite my room (see below), each with a snazzy rooftop pool and garden, complete with trees. As I looked out the window, a woman was strolling back from her swim -- completely naked. Switzerland.

Had a quick breakfast at the hotel, with a brief James Bond moment as the two guys at the table next to me discussed Syria. Don't know who they were but one guy was European and the other Arab, and the Arab kept saying "well if this doesn't work we can do it on the ground. That is possible for us." Intrigue! Or maybe just wishful thinking.

Then the 30 second motorcade to UN HQ, where we are parked in a press room. The waiting has started -- and will likely last most of the day. Clinton and the rest have closed door sessions, a lunch, and more closed door sessions. So it is all going to be hearsay until Annan comes out at the end and says his bit, followed by a brief press conference with Clinton.

I find it hard to imagine after yesterday's unproductive meeting with Lavrov that they are going to get any sort of deal that actually pushes things along. I bet they are more likely just to call for more talks and call it a draw, which of course will be a disaster for the Syrians. But we'll see.

If everything stays on schedule (which it never does) we may get home by about 8 or 9 in the evening DC time.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Riga-St Petersburg, June 28-29


We had a busy day yesterday, flying from Helsinki to Latvia to St. Petersburg. I'm going to start with St Petersburg because it has really knocked my socks off -- what a city! The canals, the palaces, the golden church spires...all absolutely beautiful.

We arrived last evening, blazing sun at 7 p.m. Driving from the airport to the center of the city, we paused at their World War II memorial where Clinton laid another wreath. It was a pretty impressive structure - Socialist realist sculptures, and a subterranean chamber lit by electric lanterns, one for each month day of the Siege of Leningrad. They had some sort of wailing music in the background and the whole thing was a bit spooky.

We weren't really paying attention, however, because on landing the camera crew had asked Clinton for her reaction to the Supreme Court decision upholding Obama's health care law, and she had (much against expectations) answered. We all wanted the quote but the camera crew was busy filming Clinton inside the memorial. There was a lot of blackberrying back and forth and finally we got hold of the quote, which wasn't particularly interesting. But the ruling was BIG news so everybody got on their phones to send it back to Washington.

Then it was back on the bus and into the center of town, where we were staying in the perfect location right in the heart of things. The hotel, the Astoria, is one of the old ones in St. Petersburg but has been taken over by an international luxury chain (name: Rocco Forte, which is great in itself). The revamp has left a lot of the original detail, but boosted the price tag -- to $1000 per night. Crazy but that is what the market will bear. I wouldn't want to pay it myself, but I am very glad we stayed here because you really can walk to anything. The golden domed St. Isaac Cathedral is right across the street, and the onion domed Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, is a few blocks away.

I had to work for about an hour and a half after we arrived, and the rest of the folks went out with Michele K from NPR who has a local artist friend here. They kindly left me a map which I took and presented to a taxi driver, and we set off. It feels very strange to be in a city where you can't read the signs, and can't speak a word of the language. So riding in the taxi felt like shooting into space..I wasn't sure where we were going, and wasn't sure the taxi driver knew either. As we kept driving I started wondering..could they really have walked THIS far? And I had no idea of how to get back. We finally got to the restaurant and I made the taxi wait while I called Michele -- thinking that if he drove off I would never find my way back to the hotel. I was in the right spot, and within a few minutes the rest of the folks came walking up. We had originally planned on going to a Ukrainian restaurant but ended up going to a Georgian one next door. Fantastic food -- a red bean and lentil stew, braized kebabs, and crazy cheese bread with egg cooked into the top. Doesn't sound delicious but it definitely was. I was starving which helped.

Today we had a mostly free day. Clinton's schedule didn't start until 4:30 p.m., which was great for us but frustrating for her -- she had come to meet the Russian foreign minister but he kept her waiting all day. Their differences on Syria come on top of lots of other tensions, and the feeling is that the relationship is not going in the right direction. But we had some free time. I did an interview with the consul general about how Clinton's new LGBT rights policy is translated into policy in a place like Russia, which is so hostile to gay rights, and then went out to find some of the other guys to walk around the city. It really is a beautiful place, and I was able to catch the exteriors (at least) of some of the major sights: the Hermitage Museum (pictured at the top), the Admirality, the Fortress of Peter and Paul...what a collection of buildings. The city is punctuated with nice touches, like the fence around one of its parks. A couple of people who were here in earlier days say it has really cleaned up, and it feels like a bright, tourist town. I want to come back (but I don't want to spend $1000/night for a hotel!)

We had a good lunch at a sort of fancy restaurant overlooking the Ivan Cathedral (and located on the top of the Gazprom Headquarters), and then went back to the hotel to wait "movement" with Clinton. It has been a blur since then: we followed her out to the Catherine Palace, a totally over the top place in the Tsarskoe Seloe summer retreat of the Russian Imperial Family. The famous "Amber Room", destroyed by the Germans, has been rebuilt with German funding. Its strange to see a room entirely tiled in amber....not pretty, but impressive. The rest of the place was sort of Vegas meets Versailles...too much to describe here. She gave a speech to a women's group, then back to the city for her meeting with Lavrov.

The meeting went long -- we went and had another Georgian feast at a restaurant around the corner -- and then back to the plane at about 11 p.m. A State Department person gave us a few quotes on Syria while the plane was taxiing: there are still major "difficulties and differences" in the U.S. and Russian positions, one day befor the Geneva meeting where they are supposed to work everything out. Not promising. We all dialed frantically to get those quotes to our bureaux before the plane took off..and then we were in the air again.

.

I'm in Geneva now. It is 3 a.m. and we are waiting for our bags to be delivered. We start again tomorrow around 9, when Clinton heads to the UN building for the Syria meeting. It will be another day of waiting, then frantic activity (did they get a deal or not? and what next?) and then back on the plane for the 9 hour trip back to DC where it is something like 104 degrees today and will be just as hot tomorrow. Not looking forward to that, but we have had a few days in the cool Baltic and it has been beautiful. I don't have the time or energy to talk about our few hours in Latvia before we go to Russia. Looked sort of cute, in a Pied Piper way. Maybe I can fill that in later. But now I have to get my bag and go to bed.

I'll close with a picture of the Leningrad Siege Memorial -- a relic of Soviet times, but impressive nonetheless.