ADVENTURE: Tell us a bit about how you operate logistically. Do you have some supremo fixer who helps you?
Nicholas Kristof: It depends on where I’m going. If I’m legally entering Sudan, say, then the challenge is getting a permit. Sudan never wants to give me a visa. One time I was able to get in with Kofi Annan, who was secretary-general of the UN at the time. We were there for a few hours, and then he let me miss the plane going out. The Sudanese didn’t know I had stayed. But there were still roadblocks between the town where I was and the places I needed to go, and none of the aid groups would smuggle me through. Then I noticed that the aid workers wore these lanyards around their necks with IDs and passes written in English. Most of the guys at the roadblocks were soldiers who couldn’t read. So I took my frequent flier cards, put them on a lanyard around my neck, and just waved my United Airlines Mileage Plus card at the checkpoint and got through.
A: How do you avoid being targeted as a rich foreigner in some of these places?
NK: Once during the Afghan War, I had to bring about $50,000 in cash to Kabul for some other New York Times correspondents. I didn’t have a ride from the airport, but I saw a bunch of cars out at the edge of the airstrip. My strategy was to bargain and appear absolutely impoverished. I spent a good half hour angling for the cheapest, most dilapidated vehicle so the guy wouldn’t think I was worth robbing.
A: Do you usually carry that much cash?
NK: If I’m in places where I think I may be robbed, I carry a decoy wallet with a respectable amount of money, $80 or $100, and maybe some old library cards in it. So if I’m ever robbed, then I’m happy to hand that over. I keep my passport and real stockpile of cash in a pouch connected to my belt under my pants. That tends to work—and the extra cash comes in handy. In 2001, after September 11, the only way I could get out of Kabul was to pay $5,000 to a shady Ukrainian, who put me in the back of an unheated cargo plane headed for Iran.
A: Is that the closest call you’ve ever had?
NK: There was one particular trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in ’97, when I was in a plane crash getting into the country. Those of us in the plane were OK, but one person was killed on the ground, and the plane itself was a total wreck. It was so frightening, I decided to drive out of the country. But then I came across a Tutsi militia that was busy killing Hutus. They detained us for a while, but we were eventually released. Except then the militiamen had second thoughts and spent the next few days chasing after us through the jungle. To top it off, on the same trip I got the most lethal form of malaria.