Snapshots from the Road

As a journalist I’ve seen some strange things in the places I’ve been. In truth, it’s my job to see them. No matter where you are, the script never really changes. I’ve always believed that a big part of quality journalism, that one thing that separates the great from the mediocre, lies in the people who notice the details and who are willing to go just a little farther, or risk a little more, to find them.

The search for the things that explain a place can be a strange ride. There are few rules. Sometimes you just have to jump in and head down an unexpected road with no real idea where you are actually going. Occasionally the road will turn out to be a dead end but more often than not, if you trust your instincts, things just start to happen and your understanding grows. I’ve found that if you just keep moving ahead, people find you, they take you in and they show you their world. For anyone telling stories for money, the pressure is real- everyone else has “advice”, missteps get amplified, very few people know just how hard it is to find and deliver a great story. Most of us have learned the hard way that the worst thing that can happen is to get stuck in the mud. You have to keep moving and you have to keep looking. If you stay in one place, stories get harder to find.

I constantly remind myself that I’ve been lucky to get to tell some important stories, to explain things that matter to a lot of people who might not have the opportunity to see them firsthand. That said, the gift of access can be frustrating at times for the simple reason that there is just not enough time or space to tell all the stories. The simple reality is that everything in journalism is condensed- it’s only the most important things that get said out loud. What happens on the journey to the story (or the journey home or the things that unfold when you’re there) are usually never told. To me, and I know to many of the best people I’ve worked with, these are the fun things, the things we tell each other at the end of the day as we fight off exhaustion just enough to have a drink and talk about the day. It’s what builds the intense loyalty and camaraderie that few others understand.

This collection isn’t about war stories. In the places I’ve been I have, at times, seen needless death, violence, desperation, anger, disease, hopelessness, terrible injury and revenge. While it’s true that you can never really forget the ugly things, you’re a fool to let them bog you down. In fact, if you are honest with yourself, you have to use them as fuel to push forward, even if it isolates you from your everyday world. If you don’t, there’s really no point in having gone in the first place. With this in mind, when I look back, I try to remember the humour, the weirdness, the kindness and the amazing people I’ve met.

At their core, these snapshots are about the journeys we all take. They are not just about me, they are descriptions of a collective experience. In every one, someone taught me something and hopefully made me better. Those who know me know that I’m not exactly comfortable with self-promotion so this is also going to be the only place where I actually write about myself. I hope you enjoy them and that they, at the very least, offer a little context about some pretty interesting people and places.


 Stories from the Road:

DRC: My cash-flow depleted by paying bribes every time I had to renew my visa, I had to find a new way. At my Rwandan hotel I made a plan. That morning I went into the local market and bought a live chicken. The plan was to leave it as an offering and hope they’d demand less to let me in. I tucked the chicken under my arm and took a motorcycle to the border. At the border I walked into the office and casually tied its leg to the immigration officer’s desk. Looking at the bird, and then me, the border guard couldn’t control her laughter as she stamped my passport, neglecting to charge any visa fees.

Haiti: After spending several hours behind the table of a street stall in the Delmas 18 neighbourhood of Port au Prince, the ladies who owned the kiosk said I was a much nicer blanc (white person) than all the others and invited me back. I was apparently good for business.

South Africa: Outside a Zulu migrant hostel in Dobsonville, Soweto during the country’s xenophobic riots, a friend introduced me to the people he lived with so that I could get a better understanding of why foreign workers were being targeted and attacked in the townships. A group grew around us as we spoke. After a while, two things became clear : 1) outside of leaving, there was nothing the migrant workers could say or do that would change minds and 2) the people in the group I was talking to were actively involved in the violence.

I went into the township feeling upbeat and ambitious. I left defeated and depressed.

DRC: The old man held a large kitchen knife in each hand as he crouched over a slum fire in the middle of the back alley. He caught my eye by how deftly he carved the bird he cooked. Exhausted, I raised my camera. “It’s a nice shot,” I rationalized, my hubris at its peak. He raised his head and saw me. Pure rage flew from his shattered mind. He charged, knives slashing the air at face level. With no time to even turn around, I ran backwards. Nothing in a slum is ever as it seems and it’s best to never forget where you are.

Rwanda: Wandering in the bowels of the Rwandan Parliament after a late night interview with the deputy president, I realized that I was completely lost. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a haunted house before but if I had to imagine what it feels like, it is that.

Haiti: After covering election day across Port au Prince, a colleague and I decided to walk back to our guest house on the other side of the city. As we walked through the hot night, the city was a tinderbox. With the result from the day’s vote still not announced, people lingered in the streets. A theme emerged: if the election is stolen, tomorrow the country will burn.

South Africa: In Johannesburg, I mitigated the threat of carjacking by always having cans of Coke in my car and giving them out at traffic stops. In return, the hawkers on the corners swore to me that no one would touch me or my car. I drove around those areas with open windows.

Rwanda: After getting a tip from a man at my Gisenyi hotel, I showed up on the back of a motorcycle into the middle of Rwanda’s secret late-night invasion of North Kivu. Absurdly clad in shorts, flip-flops and a green motorcycle helmet, my driver drove right in to the middle of the staging area. Heavily-armed soldiers met my arrival with surprise. I hopped off the bike to ask some questions. As I did that, my driver, realizing that maybe he shouldn’t be there, beat a hasty exit. I immediately saw that no one was going to answer questions and that I had no escape route so I started to backtrack as quickly as I could. Luckily, the soldiers couldn’t figure out what I was doing there and, after some small talk about the nightlife in Nairobi, they let me slip away. I walked back to my hotel in the dark, expecting to be picked up and deported at any moment. The driver showed up the next day to get his helmet and I set out to figure out what I had seen the night before from the other side of the border.

Northern Ireland: On the 12th of July, as the Orange Order marched through the Ardoyne, a Catholic enclave, the Sheriff of Belfast gave two young journalists a running commentary of the riots below. Before that day, I had no idea Belfast had a sheriff. Judging from his physical condition and his level of inebriation, the posting wasn’t that important.

Kenya: At the height of the election crisis, authorities shut down all access to Nairobi’s downtown core. The only people allowed into the city were foreign journalists. Our driver, George, took full advantage of free reign on the city’s usually gridlocked arteries. As he tore through the streets, his two passengers were quiet, overwhelmed by the sight of a normally teeming African metropolis sitting silent and empty. Looking back, what we witnessed was beyond surreal.

Bolivia: Arriving in La Paz at 2am I was the only person on the flight whose driver didn’t show up. With no taxi in sight, I was able to hitch a ride in to the city with a helpful group of evangelical Christians from Philadelphia. During the bus trip into the city, recruitment attempts began. “God sent you to us,” a woman informed me, staring weirdly into my eyes. I politely listened, pretended not to be uncomfortable, and smiled a lot. As dark and inappropriate humour ran wild in my mind, a heavy bag fell off the rack above me, landing on my foot. As the pain blinded me, even I had to wonder.

Kenya: Friday night on the road on the outskirts of Mombasa. As the sun began to set, the haze from the garbage fires mixed with the fading light, turning the sky a striking shade of purple. By then, that smokey air was my normal. The driver, a tiny Somali man, sped through the crowds. From the back seat I thought about the people back home, probably excited for a Friday night. A man ran into the car’s path, I was sure we would hit him but he sprung past the collision like a deer on a back road in Canada. My eye caught the driver’s in the rear view mirror, even in the fading light I noticed his dilated pupils. He reached for his bag of khat. I looked out the window, realizing that I truly had no idea where I was and that I hadn’t thought about where I was going for a very long time.

Brazil: The only person who spoke English at the Rio de Janeiro bar I walked in to was man named Joca. He wore a red dress, high heels, a wig and heavy makeup. We struck up a conversation and I spent hours being introduced to the lives of a parade of gangsters, drug dealers, prostitutes and heavily-tattooed MMA fighters. That night I learned much about the imperfection of living in Rio and the kindness that, to me, defines that city.

Kenya: In Nairobi, I watched from the front seat of a beat-up Kia station wagon taxi as the driver wildly (and bravely) drove through flaming tire roadblocks during my first day of the post-election crisis. The driver, a slight middle-aged man named Daniel, later explained that he didn’t stop because he wasn’t sure who had put up the roadblocks and what would happen to us if he stopped. He told me that, as he drove through the flames, he had prayed that there weren’t large stones concealed by the tires. From that point on I called him every time I needed a taxi.

Colombia: Having a long conversation in a Cartagena restaurant with two Colombian prostitutes via the translation apps on our phones. They were cautiously happy that 50 years of war looked to be coming to an end but worried that the economy had bet too heavily on the oil and gas industry. If the government didn’t shield its economy from exposure to the price of oil and revenues dropped, one of the women argued via Google translate, the cocaine cartels would have space to position themselves to fill the void and there would be pain on the horizon for everyone.

Kenya: Talking to two high-ranking Kenyan politicians at a Nairobi military base during the height of the post election violence. Both smirked evilly as they explained that there was no organized violence to denounce, their eyes telling a very different story from what they said. A few blocks away, behind a garage, a burned-out bus that had been packed with people fleeing the violence sat quietly. The day before, the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and set alight. Everyone on board had died.

DRC: Writing a story on a hillside in Rumangabo, I was startled by a heavy smack to the back of my head. Turning around to see what it was, I realized it was the grenade part of an RPG held by a curious soldier peering over my shoulder.

Uganda: Arriving at Entebbe airport outside Kampala, exhausted by weeks on the road, I came to the conclusion that I was being asked for a bribe at immigration. Well used to the process, I began to negotiate. I explained to the two officers that I was a freelancer with limited funds. The officers kindly explained that not all African officials were corrupt and that, in their eyes, it wasn’t a crime to be poor. Embarrassed, I apologized profusely. As I left the office, they graciously wished me good luck and suggested that I get some sleep.

South Africa: I spent a long night talking Zimbabwean politics with an exiled group of opposition leaders in the back room of a Johannesburg dive bar called Ratz. It was an striking inside glimpse inside the absurdity of life under Robert Mugabe. They talked about living with the constant threat of imprisonment or assassination. They talked about their colleagues who had died gruesome deaths. One of them laughed as he told me that “you get used to it.” I think of them sometimes when people I know in Canada use the word “security” when talking about the new apartment building they just moved in to.

DRC: Door-stopping the warlord Bosco Ntaganda in Goma. Known as “the Terminator,” Ntaganda, having just taken control of the main rebel group in North Kivu had dropped out of sight. Everyone wanted to talk to him. In Goma, someone told me where they thought he might be staying so I went to the house and rang the doorbell. The woman who answered the door menacingly told me that he wasn’t home at the moment. I asked her if she could take my number and ask him him call me. She did. He didn’t.  Ntaganda, not known for his intellectual prowess, had a very short run as a rebel leader and is now at the Hague facing a war crimes trial.

Ireland: On the street in Cork, I noticed streets being blocked off by large men in leather jackets and sunglasses. There were no uniformed police in sight. I asked around and found out that it was the parade to commemorate the Easter Rising.  I followed the crowd as it wound through the city. I blindly turned a corner and almost bowled over Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander. He grimly looked at me and stuck out his hand. I shook it and we chatted for a while. He told me he had been to Toronto. I told him I too had been to Toronto. We didn’t really bond. As we spoke, a shiver ran through me. There was something about his eyes. Never have I met someone so hard or so cold.

South Africa: Sunday morning on 7th Avenue in Melville, Johannesburg. In my last days in the city I walked to the local store to buy the Sunday paper. Coming out of the store, my guard was down. A man appeared from around a corner. I noticed his knife. Without hesitation or thought, I grabbed the rolled-up Sunday Times newspaper in my back pocket and hit him squarely on top of the head. He gave me a shocked look and fled back around the corner. No words were exchanged between us. I walked home and read the paper over coffee on a balcony overlooking the city. I rarely mentioned the story until years later. Such was life in Johannesburg.

Kenya: The raid on Kibera started without warning. Soldiers and policemen charged down the hill. We tore after them, hearts pounding, adrenaline coursing. They swarmed the slum, beating people with sticks and firing tear gas. People scurried to escape. A woman sat against a shack with her children, all of them terrified and crying. An elderly man completely covered in mud crouched in a corner, almost camouflaged. Another man appeared behind us, dramatically scraping his machete along the paved part of the road. Tear gas streamed in thick columns out of tin shack doors. Shots were fired.

An hour later, at a nearby hospital, I stood in an operating room, having brazenly invited myself in. A man named Joffery clung to life, shot through the throat. Later, his friend would tell me that the two men had been standing outside their homes watching the raid when a policeman came around a corner and opened fire. He was a religious man who kept his politics to himself, the friend told me. He could think of no reason for the shooting. The doctor worked furiously. As I stood by, the patient’s eyes opened and fixed on me. At that moment he died. I was immediately overcome with guilt: An African man who had surely never left his country, his last image, an uninvited white stranger. The doctor, sensing my shame, grabbed the body and sat it up, showing me the entry and exit wounds. I turned to leave. Without malice, the doctor challenged me: “Don’t forget why you are here,” he said.

Behind the hospital, at the concrete emergency room dock, colleagues waited. The mood in the group was calm, almost content. It was as if being together reminded us, despite the chaos around us, how lucky we were. A phone buzzed, something was up, back to the cars and into the city.

DRC: The lawn furniture on the front lines for the interview was carefully staged. Three chairs for the FARDC commanders faced by one for me. The security detail formed a circle around us, guns at the ready. I arrived and was seated, the commanders arrived and sat opposite me. I reached for a digital recorder, guns trained on me, soldiers yelled, I froze. “No,” a soldier warned me, face serious. The interview started. Five minutes. Talk about the state of the conflict. All business. The senior commander gave me news no one else had, in the morning there would be a ceasefire. I could see action in the background as we spoke and tried to make sense of it. The five minutes passed quickly, I started to wrap things up.

As I prepared to leave, the senior commander stopped me. “You’re from Montreal?” he prodded. “I am,” I replied. “Can you help me get a visa?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted to study at L’Universite de Montreal.” I laughed, explaining that I wasn’t sure I had that power. 30 minutes later we were still there, all sitting around. The guns had dropped. The security detail sat on the ground. They peppered me with questions about life in Canada. They couldn’t understand how I wasn’t married, how I had no children, why I was, by choice, in such a miserable country. In return, I told funny stories about a place I’d not seen for a very long time. For a half hour it seemed as though we all forgot we were 50 yards from war.

Kenya/Somalia border region: The Somali woman was telling me off. I was definitely being scolded. I had no idea what I had done to her. I looked around the desert scrub for help explaining my offense. It was teeming with people, everyone focused on one thing, water (and more specifically the lack of it.) People positioned themselves and their animals near the well the NGO had flown us up to see. I looked back, the woman was still yelling at me, her eyes blazing with indignation. The NGO man came by and started to laugh. “She says you’re upsetting her camels. They’ve never seen anyone who looks like you.”

It was a fair point.

Kenya: In the back recesses of the cholera tent she lay quietly on the canvas bed. An aid worker introduced us. She sat up, wrapped a blanket around her midsection and quietly answered questions. She was in pain and weak with exhaustion but her dignity and honesty eclipsed her affliction a thousand times over. She knew she would get better now that she was at the clinic but it took time for the antibiotics to kick in and the bacteria was still ravaging her body. As we spoke, neither of us acknowledged the bursts of waste leaving her body, passing through the hole in the cot she sat on and into the white plastic bucket below. As I left I went to shake her hand. It was her who reminded me that we were forbidden to touch each other in case we passed on the infection. Of all the people I’ve ever met, she was the strongest.

Canada: I was beyond tired when I arrived in Montreal. I sat in the Irish pub at an impromptu welcome home party. It was a Friday night and the place was full. 24 hours before I had sat in a Nairobi cafe with a friend. Out of the blue there was a commotion and the familiar sounds of launching teargas canisters caught my ear. The staff sprang in to action, running to pull down the heavy metal shutters to keep the approaching mob out. I reacted instinctively, grabbing my camera bag and sprinting to duck under the shutters before they closed. Anything but being trapped inside while something happened outside. I looked back to shout goodbye to my friend, she was laughing at me, she understood.

At the pub on the other side of the world I wondered how I could explain any of it to anyone there. I looked down at my boots, I could see the red dirt that still coated them. I knew there was nothing I could ever really say that would tell the story right.

Haiti: The 2010 earthquake knocked everything down. To see it was beyond overwhelming. The airport was no exception. With the main building destroyed, the departure terminal was relocated to a nearby warehouse. I arrived for my flight with time to spare. I joined the huge line up that had formed outside the doors. An hour later, it hadn’t moved- I was still a hundred people from the doors, let alone the gate. I began to worry. A man approached me and explained that, for a fee, I could bypass the line. I agreed, rationalizing that the entitlement would be justified by not having to pay for another flight. I assumed he would lead me to a back door. I forgot I was in Haiti. There, things are done differently. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me, barging ahead, pushing people out of his way, loudly fighting with anyone who protested. He pushed an obese woman, she pushed him back. They yelled. As we bulled by her, she grabbed my other arm and followed.

Inside the terminal it was chaos, no lines, everyone pushing. It was everyone for themselves. I looked back, the fat woman still had her death-grip on my arm. She trailed a massive suitcase and two kitchen chairs with her other hand. I noted her strength. We made it to the check-in desk and I gave some money to my “guide.” He looked sour and demanded more. Sensing he’d got all he could from me, he turned to the fat lady. She looked at him with disgust and refused. “It’s not for me,” he whined in Creole. “It’s for my mother, she’s very sick.” The woman laughed. “I don’t care. If you’re mother looks like you, then she is very ugly.” The man did his best to look shocked as she continued. “Actually, I HATE your mother. I hope she dies.” To this day, there is not a collective sense of humour that I enjoy more than Haiti’s.

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