Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to Live and Write in a Foreign Land (Part II)

The woman hides her eyes from my camera in Cairo

October, 2012--Cairo, Egypt.

It's early evening and impossibly dark outside. A darkness made all the richer by the city smog and the lack of electricity in this revolution-plagued country. Zandri is riding in the backseat of a van that also contains his driver, an impossibly thin and bearded middle-aged man with a perpetual smile, and a fixer, a young woman, newly graduated from the university but now forced to cover some of her face as mandated by the new government.

Seated beside him is a friend he's brought along as a second set of eyes in a place where admitting you are an American can get you beaten or at the very least, detained for questioning. Better to say you are from Canada which will almost always invoke the response from those asking, "Don't die Canada Dry!"

But these are tense, if not dangerous times while across a piece of desert in nearby Benghazi, several American diplomats were brutally murdered during an organized terrorist raid on the consulate only three weeks earlier on September 11. Driving back on the busy highway from a day spent in Giza at Zandri's request so he could research the pyramids for his upcoming novel, THE SHROUD KEY, a green, 1990s era Toyota pickup pulls up along side the white van.

The smiling driver grows noticeably nervous as the three men who fill the Toyota cab lock eyes on the van and its four inhabitants. The fixer gazes upon the bearded and dark-eyed men inside the Toyota but then quickly removes her gaze, choosing instead to focus on the night-time road. Her fear is palpable, like the hot, humid air.

Zandri isn't liking this, and he says so to his friend Barry. Barry is a most trusted confidant but he is also fearless. A self described "radical," he came to Egypt not only to back the writer up should things get hairy, but to get a first-hand look at what was happening here post-Arab Spring and with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power. A power that comes not from the many new banners of martyrdom that paint the walls of downtown Cairo or that's evident in the burnt-out state department building on Tahrir Square, but in the eternally black barrels of the AK-47s they shoulder when walking the over-crowded city streets.

The truck isn't going away.
The van driver, who is now visibly sweating, puts pedal to the metal and guns it.
The Toyota picks up speed, matching the van's, but then suddenly makes a sharp, 90-degree left turn, not only cutting off the van, but causing the driver to swerve left, forcing the vehicle into a roadside ditch.

The van comes to a crashing stop, cracking the windshield. Zandri lurches forward, slamming his forehead against the seat-back. The fixer is saved by her seat belt. Barry in lying on his side on the seat.

"Holy shit," he says as the Toyota stops in the sandy no-man's land between the two opposing lanes of highway traffic. "Guess this is when they get out and blow us away."

Martyrs R Us...Downtown Cairo
I'm thinking the same thing, but I don't say a word, as the driver tries his damnedest to get the crashed van started back up. But it's stalled and won't start. Panic begins to set in while he turns the key and pumps the gas. The now flooded engine strains and spits, but won't catch fire.

Zandri eyes the Toyota driver as he opens the door, gets out. Even in the darkness, Zandri can see that he's wearing a traditional long robe. The passengers get out, but for the most part they are blocked from Zandri's view. They are however, partially visible in the coming and going headlights. Frustrated and afraid, the van driver opens the door, gets out. He raises up his fist and begins to scream at the Toyota driver. Zandri has no way of comprehending every bit of Arabic being lobbed, but judging from the tone, it's not entirely friendly.

Then, just as suddenly, the driver gets back in, slams the door shut, prays to Allah above that he will be most merciful and caring and will he please just, please, please, please, allow the van to start back up. He turns the key and pumps the gas like the state of the lives and afterlives of his passengers depends upon it. And it does.

The van starts. He crunches the gear shift into reverse, hits the gas, and toe-taps the clutch. The van spits sand and gravel as it backs up and out of the ditch, on coming traffic be damned all to hell. Motorbikes, cars, and trucks carrying crates of live chickens or small arms for the Brotherhood swerve past the van.

But the van driver doesn't care. He throws the shift in first, and peels on out, transporting his four passengers from a danger zone as fast as the van wheels can take them.
_ _ _

Maybe life as an international journalist or foreign correspondent isn't always this exciting, but it can have it moments. Whether it's getting stranded in the West African bush after your 4X4 has sunk into a swamp or getting chased on foot by a gangster on the streets of Moscow, or simply enjoying a coffee in a cafe in Rome or Paris, being a professional writer in a foreign land not only requires a hard working ethic, but it also requires long hours of relatively uninteresting assignments. That is you want to make ends meet.

What kind of work is available for you as a stringer or writer? Here's a sample of what's out there.

--Blue chip news outlets like CNN, Fox, RT, BBC, and more, can be lucrative in terms of your portfolio, but jobs are hard to get since most of these international news organizations already have full-time correspondents embedded just about anywhere you go. I was able to secure an ongoing with gig with RT at a time when they were open to giving me a column and taking on hard news stories from all over the world. But that opportunity suddenly came to a close when they decided to minimize their staff of freelancers and stick with their full-timers.

--Trade outlets. Trade magazines specializing in everything from home decor to concrete to construction vehicles can be a very lucrative bread and butter gigs for the freelancer. I've been lucky enough to secure great gigs from some of the architectural design and construction trades. Most of these trades pay well and on time.

--Glossy Magazines/Newspapers. Publications that specialize in travel stories and/or features on wine and cuisine are always popular. I've written for many of these magazines over the course of my career. Some writers make a living by writing for in-flight magazines alone. Of course, there are always the many newspapers that are looking for travel stories, or features stories from a faraway land. I've also written and stringed for lots of newspapers. But be advised, if an area is already HOT with news, chances are the news outlets have already sent their full-time journos there to cover the stories.  But if you are fleet of foot, try and anticipate where the next big stories are going to happen, and get there before the major media outlets set up camp.  Your best bet for finding work? Go to or, if you are already a working professional with the clips to prove it, you might join a professional organization like the Society of Professional Journalists. I'm professional SPJ member and they are invaluable not only for assignment networking, but also if you find yourself locked up in a prison in Peru, they can help get you out. 

--Other opportunities. As most of you know, I write thriller novels, so I must divide my time up between journalism and fiction. As of late, I make about 90% of my money from fiction royalties and advances, while journalism makes up the rest. That said, much of my traveling now is centered around research for upcoming novels. But those writers who don't pen fiction can find ways to supplement their journalism income by teaching English in a Foreign Land (TEFL), or simply bar tending or waiting tables. Of course, those who wish to avoid the non-writing jobs can always hope for a rich grandmother who is willing to send them some cash once a month.  

One thing that's required of all writers who wish to work overseas is to develop a gut or what Ernest Hemingway, himself a one-time freelance foreign correspondent, called a built-in shit detector. It's the voice inside you that tells you to go left when all external indicators such as roadsigns say go right. It's the thing that tells you to stop when there's nothing to prevent you from going on. Case and point: Last year I was set to enter into Syria via Turkey at the precise location where about a dozen or more journalists have entered and have since been kidnapped and in some cases, beheaded by ISIS. While I had my driver ready to go, I did not have a willing companion to join me as backup (Never enter into an area of armed conflict without a second set of eyes!). My shit detector spoke to me, and in the end I decided not to enter into the civil war plagued area until I could find proper backup. A couple of months ago I received a note from my fixer in the wake of the journalist beheadings saying he was glad we didn't go through with the Syria border crossing last Fall. He couldn't live with himself had I been killed.

---all photos by Vincent Zandri



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