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Forget glamour and pack armor

Times Staff Writer

The blast of insecticide jolted me awake. A Mexicana flight attendant had just doused me with a chemical cloud while her colleague explained over the intercom that the Cuban Health Ministry requires arriving aircraft to be fumigated.

“The substance isn’t harmful to humans,” we were assured, amid a chorus of coughing.

Ah, the glamorous life of a foreign correspondent.

Nights spent in war-zone villages without heat or indoor plumbing. Days of driving through blistering heat to hell-and-back outposts with no chance to bathe before bedding down with bugs, dust and strangers. Scary rides on dubious aircraft and lost-luggage nightmares so prolonged you burn the clothes on your back once you can take them off.

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The Mexicana debugging, presumably part of the Cuban government’s campaign against mosquito-borne dengue fever, set me to reminiscing about 25 years of reporting abroad as the plane descended in mid-June for what would be my last trip as a foreign correspondent.

Bad smells, unsafe transportation, fear and humiliation exponentially overwhelm the breathtaking moments of history and excitement. More “Perils of Pauline” than “The Year of Living Dangerously,” my journal, if I’d kept one, would be titled “The GLC Factor” (Glamorous Life of a Correspondent), or perhaps “The Indignity Index,” and allot points for each assignment’s discomforts and impositions.

From my first foreign posting to Moscow in 1984 through pro-democracy revolutions and rebuilding in Eastern Europe and wars, rebellions and natural disasters from Pakistan to Haiti, the experiences have been dramatic; the comfort and elegance, well, not so much.

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I’ve contracted giardiasis, caused by a microbial parasite, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and amoebic dysentery in the Balkans. A mold-spewing air conditioner in the Dominican Republic left me with bronchitis for six months. I’ve had food poisoning on four continents and rashes, gouges and bruises all over my body.

I’ve been bitten by bed bugs at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and spent sleepless nights clutching a can of Chinese-made bug spray in a rented house in Kabul, poised to ward off cockroaches as big as my hand.

That was The Times’ second house in the Afghan capital, secured at war-profiteering rates in the aftermath of the October 2001 invasion. The first house, in a slightly more upscale neighborhood, didn’t have roaches but came with a cook with a tubercular cough, dirty hands and more than a touch of body odor.

Grim accommodations are the norm where there’s conflict or catastrophe, the sad staples of foreign reporting.

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Only weeks into the Bosnian war that began in 1992, shellfire had blasted out the windows at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. We referred to the rooms as “air-conditioned,” and, during the couple of hours there was electricity each evening, learned the fine balance between powering up laptops and heating water in our hot pots for bathing. We ate in a bunkered dining room where the noise of the generator overpowered conversation and, during the worst of the siege, the only fresh offering was stewed goat.

Consuming undesirables is often a cultural necessity. To refuse fermented yak milk in Central Asia would be an insult to the host. Fried ants are a snack in parts of Latin America, offered as a friendly gesture the way one might share a bag of M&Ms.; The only way I found to get out of Soviet-era officials’ vodka toasts to peace -- at 9 a.m. -- was to feign pregnancy, and even that wasn’t always persuasive.

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Embarrassment is a good teacher. After a magnitude 7 earthquake struck at 1:30 a.m. on the Soviet-Romanian border in 1986, crushing walls and shattering windows at my hotel, I fled my sixth-floor room barefoot -- and in a baby-doll nightgown. I stood outside with other evacuees, many in even less clothing, until we figured it was safe to go back in. Note to self: Pack modest sleepwear.

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So, when dispatched from Bonn to accompany a German Red Cross search team to Armenia after an earthquake in December 1988, I packed flannel pajamas. I took off in a snowstorm with 30-odd German shepherds, their handlers, and a German journalist for what proved to be a 13-hour ordeal before we landed in Yerevan for the overland journey to the quake site. The wet-dog smell permeated my coat, which I had to use as a blanket, not having had the sense to bring a sleeping bag. Neither had the Der Spiegel reporter, so we spent the night huddled together, pressed back to back and layered with our coats to hold in our body heat. Neither he nor I ever spoke of it when we ran into each other again while working on stories.

Sharing beds is the ultimate glamour-buster, like when we slept in shifts in 1991 while covering the first elections in Albania. Tirana had only a few dozen available rooms, and three times as many foreign observers and reporters had poured in.

It was a practice that I later learned is known in the U.S. Navy as “hot-racking” -- when there are too few berths to go around, one sailor climbs in after another gets up, the bedding still warm.

We didn’t have to do that during the month I spent aboard the Abraham Lincoln for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But with six of us crammed into a four-bunk stateroom and two cots taking up the remaining floor space, it quickly took on the look of a prison cell after a riot.

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My upper berth was just under the No. 4 catapult, propelled by screaming steam engines to hurl warplanes on their bombing missions. The hearing in my right ear has never been the same.

Wars, which unfortunately dominate today’s foreign assignments, have a scary way of combining the hazards of munitions, nervous armed factions and unsettling modes of transportation.

In the mid-1980s, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, the Foreign Ministry would take Moscow-based foreign correspondents there to show how well they had everything under control. Once we arrived, we flew around in the Red Army’s fixed-wing Antonov-26s, spewing flares to divert the heat-seeking Stinger missiles supplied to mujahedin insurgents by the United States. Those scenes at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War” of AN-26s being shot out of the sky were playing in my head 20 years before it was a movie.

Dodged bullets and close brushes breed a kind of gallows humor, inspiring self-deprecating accounts that make light of dangers that might otherwise give one pause about risking it again.

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Hours after I was knocked unconscious in a freak accident at a flooded village in Haiti in 2004, we were laughing to the point of tears over how a few of my colleagues -- who say they didn’t see me hit by the flying, nail-studded wooden pallet -- left without me on the Black Hawk helicopter that had taken us to the scene.

Numb from painkillers provided by the U.S. Navy medic who revived me, I returned to our hotel six hours later on the last chopper to leave the relief site, to cheers in rum-soaked reverie as a GLC Hall of Famer.

Some assignments serve as disquieting reminders that I’m not 25 anymore. The weeklong Pentagon boot camp for journalists planning to “embed” with U.S. troops for the Iraq invasion in 2003 included four simulated combat exercises involving physical tests that I either failed -- becoming a simulated “KIA” -- or stressed muscles to the point of paralysis when it was over.

The boot camp was intended to prepare us for the Lincoln, where some colleagues regarded certain moments on the aircraft carrier as thrilling, like the arrested landings and catapulted takeoffs. The former feels like being in a plane crash, just without the explosion and dying. The departing plunge leaves your breath and stomach 100 yards behind you.

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I’ve perfected The Clench for such moments, including the spiral dives into Baghdad airport to evade any ground fire. I hold my breath, freeze, close my eyes and listen to my mind scream: “Why on Earth did you agree to do this?”

It’s a question best answered after the assignment, when you’re back home regaling friends and family with tales of hardship and hilarity. The stories end up sanitized, to protect loved ones from fearing for your life the next time you go out and to dissuade the rest from thinking you an idiot with a death wish.

You also reflect on the golden moments, when all that you dreamed of in living and working abroad came to be.

I’ve breezed through chandelier-lighted palaces in the Kremlin, been dog-sledding in Greenland, cycled along the Danube, traveled the Trans-Siberian railroad and hiked atop China’s Great Wall.

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I’ve interviewed world leaders, such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, chatted in Hungarian [admittedly bad] with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, communed with inspirational geniuses such as renowned astronomer Carl Sagan and sipped champagne at celebrity-studded film festival parties in Moscow, Berlin and Havana.

I’ve wept at the sight of West Germans cheering their long-isolated countrymen as they poured through Checkpoint Charlie when the Berlin Wall fell. And 11 years later, I greeted a millennium just a few steps away amid fireworks and jubilation in a Europe whole and free.

The glamour might have been sparse, but it was still enough for a lifetime.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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