Published: December 2008/January 2009
Nicholas Kristof: To the Ends of the Earth
From the front lines of Afghanistan to the jungles of Cambodia, Nicholas Kristof goes the distance for the dirt.
Text by Paul Kvinta

Nicholas Kristof figures he can do the most good in places other journalists typically avoid, far-flung spots like Darfur, western China, and the islands of Vanuatu, writing about topics—genocide, sex trafficking, acute poverty—most would sooner ignore. But it’s how he gets there that really sets this Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist apart: Kristof has mastered the art of no-frills, down and dirty travel—across 140 countries and six continents—which means lots of sneaking across borders and negotiating with unsmiling armed men. ADVENTURE caught up with him just after he’d returned from China, where he spent his time slipping into Tibet to report on human rights abuses.

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.

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.

A: You’re currently at work on your fourth book, about women in the developing world. When did that idea strike you?

NK: Back in 1989, my wife and I covered the crushing of the Tiananmen Square movement for democracy in China. For weeks the event attracted headlines on the front page, but it dawned on us that a far greater problem was the number of Chinese girls being killed each year—simply because they weren’t boys. And the same was true in India, Pakistan, and much of the world. In India, for instance, people are half as likely to vaccinate their daughters as to vaccinate their sons. An Indian girl is about 50 percent more likely to die between the ages of one and five than an Indian boy. On top of that, you’ve got sex trafficking on a vast scale. The most egregious human rights abuses in the world tend to involve gender. And if you want to address international poverty, you’ve got to bring women into the economy and educate them.

A: Do you ever worry that you might overwhelm your readers or turn them off somehow? You know, maybe someone’s drinking his morning coffee, reading the paper, and he finally throws up his hands and says, Enough! I can’t handle Kristof this morning.

NK: Sometimes I worry about writing what might be called, frankly, "genocide porn." Darfur is so painful a topic, and so brutal, and so graphic that it becomes almost titillating. I worry about that when I pile on horrifying examples. But I don’t know any other way to get people toactually act—and maybe write a letter to the White House.

A: Do you ever get to enjoy a trip?

NK: The coolest country I’ve been to is Vanuatu, an amazing set of islands in the Pacific. There’s one island called Tanna that has an incredibly dramatic volcano and a fairly traditional way of life, with everybody drinking kava out of coconut shells. There’s a cargo cult there in which people worship a guy they call John Frum. Presumably this was someone named John who introduced himself as "John from Atlanta" or "John from New York," but the latter part of it got lost. So now he’s just known as John Frum. And he’s worshipped as a god. He was likely an American soldier who showed up during WWII with a lot of technology that people had never seen before, like maybe a plane or a ship. There’s a real theology about him. Of course, I haven’t been back since, so maybe now there is another cargo cult for "Nick Frum."