Expedition Watch: Revolutionary Road Trip
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Inskeep couldn’t find a map that covered his route, so he pasted two together. Photo: Nick Fountain/NPR
When Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep started planning a 2,000-mile-long drive from Tunis, Tunisia, to Cairo, Egypt, he couldn’t find a map detailed enough to set his course. So he bought two and started cutting. There will be a lot more innovation from Inskeep on his three-week-long expedition to document change in North Africa. “We did a lot of planning on this trip, but a lot of a trip like this is being able to improvise,” he said. “Make it up as you go along and be willing to follow what you discover to its logical end.”
The 43-year-old reporter has covered the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and the war in Iraq. Since he started at NPR in 1996, he’s taken home three Alfred I. duPont Silver Batons—the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. On June 4, he, producer Nishant Dahiya, and photographer John Poole will drive through Tunis and file their first report from the ruins of Carthage, the city destroyed by the Roman Empire in 146 B.C. Then they'll drive from town to town, filing story after story for a series called Revolutionary Road Trip. We called him shortly before they left.
Where did this idea come from?
These are three of the most interesting countries on earth. They’re connected geographically and they’re connected as part of the same gigantic story. It just seems like one huge, almost once in a lifetime, opportunity to see a rapidly changing part of the world in a really, really wide angle.
Is there something that doing this as a road trip offers that jumping in at different points wouldn’t offer?
Totally. We’ve done this before. We did a road trip across South Asia—several correspondents, producers, and me—along the Grand Trunk Road, from Calcutta, or Kolkata, to Peshawar, Pakistan.
It affects the kinds of stories you seek out, it affects the kind of people you look for, it causes you to think about the relationships between different places along the road, and often, there’s remarkable similarities, human similarities, between places that are very different and people that may even hate each other. You find out that they eat similar foods, or that they have very similar traditions in some places. It really affects your outlook.
Another thing is this, whenever I’m reporting and especially when I’m reporting overseas, it’s important to be open to the idea that the story that you discover could never have been pinpointed from a distance. Putting yourself on the road creates many opportunities to discover stories that you would never have thought to go look for.
How will you make the drive and what kind of gear will you take?
We will end up in several cars. You discover in a lot of places that, while you could drive yourself, it is not the smartest thing. You want to hire a local driver who knows where he is going, who is comfortable driving 90 or 100 mph, which is what some drivers in the wide-open spaces of Libya may do without you asking. We will probably hire a succession of drivers.
I have been going overseas to conflict zones for a little over a decade, and I have probably taken a little less stuff every time that I have gone. You want a laptop. You want an adapter so you can plug that laptop into the cigarette lighter of somebody’s car. You want a sat phone. You want to be able to make connections with that sat phone from the middle of that desert where there is no regular communication of any kind, so you have this tiny satellite dish that you put on the roof of a parked truck and plug into the truck battery. That kind of stuff, over the last decade, has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and easier to carry. I’ve got a U.S. military compass, which I’ve had since the first time I went into Iraq, but I only occasionally use it. You’ve got a compass in your iPhone now, so it’s almost like a sentimental thing to bring.
You want to travel light. There is at least one border that we are likely to cross where you get out of your vehicle and walk for the last mile, or couple of miles, and it may be the middle of the day and 100 degrees. So you really don’t want to have 50 pounds of luggage.
Inskeep and producer Nishant Dahiya interviewing a scholar in Cairo on Skype. Photo: Nick Fountain/NPR
Could you talk a little bit about your strategy for finding stories?
I start by reading everything I possibly can before I go. When I say reading, I’m reading news articles as I’m talking to you here in Washington. I’ve got three stacks, one for each for of the countries we’re going to visit. I’m also reading history books, which I prefer. I was reading Roman history about Carthage just the night before last, and reading about Egypt in the 1980s last night. You want to get every book that you can.
The second thing is to invoke the six degrees of separation rule. If you start looking around the United States, especially in a place like Washington, you will find people who have been to that country—who are expatriates of that country. You start reaching out to them every way that you can. And hopefully, in that way, you will find people that sound interesting that you can go and see in Libya, or go and see in Tunisia. You get the stories that way, and there can be a lot of serendipity there. I mean, you’re just searching for people.
You may notice from your own experience as a reporter, you find a really cool story and someone says, “How the hell did you find that story?” And you actually have to think about it for a few minutes. You’re not even sure. “Well, I was improvising. I was just talking to people and there I was in the town square, just as this amazing thing happened. And it happened right in front of me.” You just rely on serendipity.
What are some of the toughest situations you’ve reported on?
First, I don’t want to claim that I’ve been in the most amazing situations, because I know people that have taken far greater risks than I have done. I mean, someone like Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who spent a lot of time in Libya last year and has been honored for her coverage. I think of a time with Lourdes in Baghdad in 2006 or 2007. It was a period when people were afraid to leave their fortified news bureaus unless they were in armored cars. It was perfectly reasonable to be afraid because so many people were being killed. The idea of just going to chat with people on the street had been unheard of for a couple of years. Then, one day, we played a piece on Morning Edition, and there was Lourdes in the middle of a bazaar just chatting with a guy on the street. I said, “What are you doing?” And she said, “Well, I’ve been out of the country for a few weeks and I just wanted to get a feel for how things are going.”
A few things have happened to me of interest. Once, I was detained by some gunmen in Afghanistan, but basically they had taken control of a border crossing and wanted a tax from anybody who seemed like they had money. I had to argue with them for a couple of hours, and in the end they actually said to my interpreter, “He’s a miser, he can just go. We aren’t even talking to him anymore.”
Things like that happen, but two things make them tolerable. First, when you go to a place where you’ve heard all sorts of terrible news, you discover that even in that place where society is coming apart, 99.9 percent of the people are inviting and even hospitable. They are delighted to see a foreigner and they’ll look after you, some even more so than if you were a native of the country. The other thing that keeps you safe is that you try to keep a low profile. Be respectful of local customs and traditions, stay where you stay, go to talk to who you need to talk to, talk to them, and then move on. Don’t linger. If you go to a place that seems a little scary, you don’t linger. You don’t go out of your way to add to the risk that you are taking. You just take the risks necessary and move on.
What is your biggest worry?
The biggest fear that I ever have, and I don’t know if this makes sense, is that I’m not going to get a story. This was especially true with some of my early trips to the war in Afghanistan. I mean, it’s scary to go. I don’t want to pretend that it’s not scary to go. But I was more afraid about getting out of the middle of nowhere and my equipment would break and I wouldn’t be able to file. You record some great interviews, but your greatest paranoia is that something is going to happen. Your computer is going to blow up. Someone is going to take your equipment from you. Something is going to happen before you file. You’re so focused on that. You grab the first opportunity to upload the sound so no one can take it from you. You focus on that as much as you pay attention to your security. I can’t say that’s ever happened to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve been paranoid all of these years.
Steve Inskeep at the ruins of Carthage. Photo: John Poole/NPR
What’s your biggest hope for this trip?
I would hope that by the end of this journey that we have a clearer picture of the way that people in three different nations are rewriting the rules of their own existence in a way they’ve never had a chance to do before. And I hope we can share that with people on the radio.
Are there any specific stories you’re looking for?
Yeah, everything that we’re looking for gets at this sense of people rewriting the rules. We’re talking with people in Tunisia who are arguing over the rules of Islam in politics. We hope to get at things like, what are the roles of women supposed to be? What might change as far as women’s rights? What are the roles of minorities of the Jewish community in Tunisia? We hope and expect to have conversations with some of the people in that community because you feel like the most vulnerable minority groups are little signals, little trip wires, that tell you if there are going to be wider problems in a society. If they are going to be well protected, then you can feel reasonably confident that lots of people are going to be well protected in that society.
We’re looking at questions of Islam and governance. We’re looking into questions of law and order in Libya. What happens, for example, to all of the prisoners in Muammar Gaddafi’s government who are now in jails? How do they get them fair trials? We’re looking at the way the economy is changing in the course of the presidential election in Egypt.
Having told you all of that high concept stuff, I want to draw it back down to what you get to do on a road trip like this. I just want to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of personal stories, the stories of individuals that I can relate to, and that people back home can relate to. I think if you get strong personal stories, those broader, grander issues become apparent.
And there’s no better way to do that than to go in?
No. I don’t know how much you get to travel for your job. You’ve got such a cool magazine. Maybe you know this feeling. You’re about to do a story. You can’t figure it out at all from a distance, but then you arrive. An hour after you arrive you have a completely different understanding of the place, one that you could not possibly have obtained without going there.