BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert D. Kaplan, author of "The Ends of the Earth." You say at the beginning of the book it's all about traveling.
ROBERT D. KAPLAN, AUTHOR, "THE ENDS OF THE EARTH" Right. It's all about traveling in the sense of John Gunther traveling, in the sense of Herodotus or Odysseus traveling. In other words, what I wanted to do was a sort of an old generalists book where I would take in travel writing, history, demographics, sociology and blend them all together and cover a wide swath of the Earth.
Because I think there are so many books out there, people don't have time to read 500 words on 500 pages on west Africa, 500 pages on Asia or 500 pages of literary travelogue and then another public policy book. I think people yearn for the old-fashioned generalists Guntheresque book and that's what I was trying to do here. To do a book that would break categories, break genres, to try to be a sort of hippy backpacker but with the questions of a Washington policy wonk.
LAMB: What's the time frame?
KAPLAN: Of the traveling?
KAPLAN: About a year. A total of a year, but a number of these places I had been back several times over the past 15 years...
KAPLAN: ...and I was making an umpteenth journey for the sake of the book, so to speak.
LAMB: But was it a continuous trip?
KAPLAN: In some cases, yes, in some cases, no. West Africa was a separate trip. Egypt I'd been back to about 10 or 15 times. Turkey I've been to about 30 times, because I used to live in Greece but I spent two months, particularly for this book, there. Iran I went through many times. But Iran, central Asia, China, Pakistan, India were one thing; I didn't go home. Then I went home for a little bit and came back; Thailand, Laos, Cambodia.
LAMB: Pick a memorable character that you met and tell us about him or her.
KAPLAN: All right. One of the most memorable characters I met was a man named Mosin Rafiq Doost, who was Khomeini's private chauffeur and private bodyguard--the Ayatollah Khomeini, that is. He was a boy who grew up in the bazaar working at a fruit stand and who was one of the disaffected, sub-proletariat of Iran that--that joined the movement with the mullahs early and rose up quickly, was imprisoned by the shah.
And then when the Ayatollah returned from Paris, this was in late--early 1979, this man, Mosin Rafiq Doost, found himself in the position of picking the Ayatollah up at plane side with adoring millions all around at the airport and literally driving the car through the streets as the car was rocked and people were shouting. Rafiq Doost then went on to become one of the leaders of the revolutionary guards which was to brutally crush all of the opposition afterwards.
And then, after all of the money or much of the money was confiscated from the shah's family and from some of the wealthy Iranians who'd fled the country, Rafiq Doost gathered it all up under the name of this humanitarian sounding organization--the Foundation of the Oppressed and is now the wealthiest man in Iran, worth billions perhaps, operating a holding company. Nobody knows how the money is spent, to who and to what terrorist groups abroad it may go to.
I went to Iran and I spent some time with Rafiq Doost not asking him specific questions about the money, though I did, I didn't get much answers, but just watching him. Watching him behave with people, with me, trying to understand how Iran, the regime, really, operates. And what I learned was, it was as if I was spending time with John Gotti in the days before he was convicted of Mafia activities in Brooklyn.
I realized, was the reality of 1990s Iran, a country where there was no Islamic economy or Islamic way of doing things. It was a bizarre mafioso economy. That, you know, it was just, the corruption of the bazaar on a grand scale, countrywide, where people like Rafiq Doost were controlling vast fortunes. They had their own exchange rates, they had permission to do things in terms of sending money abroad that the average Iranian didn't have. It was a network of deals that operated in an under-the-table, informal manner where written laws had yet to be invented.
LAMB: What was the longest period of time you ever spent on one of these many buses you rode?
KAPLAN: About 36 or 40 hours on a bus that went from Kashgar in--no, that went from Urumqi in western China, which is a region where, in the countryside there aren't many Chinese but it's mainly Turkic Muslim people. So although you're in China, you're seeing Arabic calligraphy, Arabic script and...
LAMB: I've got a map here, one of your many maps. I'm looking at it backwards--now come over to the other side, please--right over there. I mean--is that it?
KAPLAN: Yeah, yeah. That's it. Right.
LAMB: Urumqi, right there?
KAPLAN: And what I did with the bus, or what the bus did, rather, with me in it was to cross over that mountain range at the top right hand corner of the picture and then go southwestward along the southern slope of the Tientsin Mountains all the way to Kashgar which seems--yeah, that's around there. That's it. That's more or less it.
It seems short on the map but it took two days or so, and you slept on the bus in the seat, and the driver stopped about every eight hours or so in these kind of noodle stands, where you would see these guys throwing up huge noodles into the air, long noodles, about six feet long, and you'd go in the back to some very rustic restaurant, and then the--the toilets were always, you know, 100 yards in the back with growling dogs all around, and everyone in the bus would pour out and slurp down these noodles, and then you'd try to get some water. You'd turn on a tap coming out of the ground. The water--rusty water would trickle out. And you'd fill up your canteen, and you'd put iodine tablets in so you wouldn't get sick from it.
And then you'd get back on the bus, and it was--the bus was not air conditioned, and people had all their goods on the bus. They had cooking containers. They had burlap sacks. Everyone had taken off their shoes, and it was all very crowded, and this is how people travel. This is how people cover large distances in western China. This is a part of China where the 14 percent growth rate, the computer revolution, China joining the Pacific Rim, the new superpower of the 21st century doesn't exist.
LAMB: Did you ever total up what the entire trip cost you?
KAPLAN: No, I didn't, but I can tell you that I would go weeks spending maybe $10 a day, but other parts of the trip were enormously expensive, because to get to Iran, I had to fly in and there were no--you know, it was hard to get a budget fare. And then once in a while, you'd have to stay at a luxury hotel for a night or so just to clean up, get--you know, take a bath, and that was a lot of money. But the most expensive part of the journeying was because I'd start off one place and fly back from someplace else. I could never buy round-trip fares. So the fact of buying one-way fares halfway back around the world kind of evened out with the weeks of $10-a-day traveling.
LAMB: Did you travel with anyone?
KAPLAN: At times for a few days I would travel with a guide, and the guide was someone I found by myself. I never went to an official guide or tourist bureau. I never did that. What I would do is hang around at a university or at a youth hostel and try to find a local character or a local student who happened to speak English and was definitely not a professional tour guide. Because I wanted someone who would be discovering things just as I was discovering things; you know, who wasn't quite sure what I was after, so to speak.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
KAPLAN: I live in the Washington area, in Maryland.
LAMB: What do you do on a full-time basis?
KAPLAN: I sit at home and write all day when I'm not traveling or I'm not at the library. My time is spent three ways: traveling, library, writing. Occasionally, two or three times a year, I'll go to a seminar for a day or so; occasionally, two or three times a year, I'll give a speech; but mainly it's writing, traveling, library.
LAMB: For what publication?
KAPLAN: For The Atlantic Monthly. I'm a contributing editor, and the articles in The Atlantic have, for the last 10 years, grown up into books. I also write for Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and then sorted instances here and there for some other publications like The New Republic, The New York Times, Sophisticated Traveler.
LAMB: What year did you write "Balkan Ghosts?"
KAPLAN: I wrote it in 1989 and 1990. I finished it in 1990. The book was rejected by 14 publishers who said that nothing would happen in the Balkans, it was another obscure part of the world. My earlier book on Afghanistan did not do well. So they said, `This is another obscure area, nothing's going to happen.' It finally came out just as the war was kicking up.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in writing and in traveling?
KAPLAN: I got my interest in writing and traveling probably from my father. My father spent the Depression years as sort of a hobo and racetrack tout, traveling throughout the 50--48--lower 48 states of America. He was probably at every race course in the lower 48 states during the 1930s. And I grew up listening to his stories of traveling. He and after he stopped that, he became a truck driver for the rest of his life, but he always read a lot, and he always read about history, and that's why my goal was always to come back and do a book about America, which I'm just starting now.
LAMB: What was his name?
KAPLAN: His name was Philip Kaplan.
LAMB: And drove trucks for...
KAPLAN: The New York Daily News.
LAMB: For how long?
KAPLAN: For about--well, since--well, he was a soldier in World War II. For about 30 years.
LAMB: And where did you grow up?
KAPLAN: I grew up in a place called Far Rockaway, New York.
LAMB: Where's that?
KAPLAN: That's in Queens on the border with Long Island. It's part of New York City.
LAMB: And where did you go to college?
KAPLAN: I went to college at the University of Connecticut. I got admitted because of my swimming ability. I was a competitive swimmer. But I didn't continue long with swimming. I took a few journalism courses. Then I worked for 18 months as a reporter for the Rutland Daily Herald in Rutland, Vermont. I wanted to move up to a bigger paper. I couldn't get a job. Nobody would hire me. So I bought a one-way ticket to Tunisia and basically stayed overseas for about 15 years...
LAMB: Who are...
KAPLAN: ...as a free-lancer, which I still am, actually.
LAMB: Who are all these people?
KAPLAN: All right. The book is dedicated to three diplomats and a relief worker. Dick Hoagland is a diplomat who's now the US press officer in Moscow, who gave me enormous assistance in Uzbekistan for this book, and enormous assistance in Afghanistan for one of my previous books. Kiki Munshi is a diplomat who gave me enormous assistance in west Africa, and is now a US diplomat in Tanzania. And Ernest Latham is someone who probably more than any other person inspired me to write the book "Balkan Ghosts," and he's an old US foreign service officer in the Balkans who's now retired. And the relief worker, Graham Miller, is an Australian who I first met during the--covering the Ethiopian famine in southern Sudan. We remained friends for many years, and we saw each other again in Cambodia for this book. He's a character in the book.
LAMB: If you had to pick a place that you wrote about in this book, that you would go back, the first place you would go back just to enjoy yourself, where would that be?
KAPLAN: Because it's an incredibly dense, texturous culture. Persia is one of the great civilization zones of the planet. It's “touristically unspoiled”. Because the because of the criminal nature of the regime presently in power, you can go to some great medieval cities and bazaars, and you're really alone. There are very few other tourists. Precisely because Iran has already gone through the stage of an Islamic revolution that has economically failed, that has made life harder for almost all sectors of the population, the it's the one place in the Near East where people are fed up with Islam. It's the last place you'd go to see religious people.
If you want to see truly religious people, travel in the Midwest, go to upper Egypt in the Nile valley. Don't go to Iran. Iran is a place where the government uses religion for political reasons, but the mosques are empty. People watch American TV shows. They've been through their anti-Americanism. It doesn't work. It's failed. They know it through experience, and they're very hospitable to Americans.
LAMB: Where would you never go back?
KAPLAN: No place.
LAMB: Where would you just as soon not go back?
KAPLAN: I would always go back if I had the time and everything, because you never really understand places, and one of the real driving forces of this book is quick study, the whole idea of somebody coming in and doing a quick study on a place. It's not the truth, but it's a truth.
LAMB: Where was the least attractive place you visited?
KAPLAN: Well, the least attractive place was probably Guinea--Conakry, Guinea, because it's flat, no mountains, no real downtown, sort of one grim shantytown. Whereas Sierra Leone, which is sort of the nightmare of the book, is a physically attractive place because it's surrounded by mountains, the capital city Freetown, in a naturally cut harbor--very theatrical and majestic looking.
LAMB: Why Sierra Leone--looks good, but was a nightmare.
KAPLAN: Well, it was a nightmare for social and political reasons. It's a place where institutions have broken down; where electricity, water, things like that don't work; where the population is increasing rapidly; where the resource base is being depleted; where the government doesn't really control much outside of the capital city. So when you travel outside of the capital city, you're really in no-man's-land with soldiers who aren't so much soldiers as sort of thugs with parts of uniforms and guns and drunk. And you encounter guerrilla groups who don't really have an ideology, and that's very dangerous, when you see people fighting for no real reason that they can articulate.
LAMB: Did you ever come close to either being harmed or, you know, getting too sick that you couldn't get back or...
KAPLAN: Well, getting harmed at roadblocks in Sierra Leone when a soldier who was obviously drunken would point a gun in my face and asked me for my watch. And you'd have to try to talk your way out of it. I had a driver who helped me, and nothing happened, and I kept my watch. Once during this journey I got real sick. That was in central Asia, in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan, rather, and it was at an embassy party, as it happened. It wasn't something I ate on the street. It was in the Kazakh Embassy. I had horse meat and too much vodka, and I got very sick.
LAMB: Liberia was on this map.
KAPLAN: It's on the map, and I went around its border areas, and I interviewed Liberians, but I didn't go into Liberia.
LAMB: Why not?
KAPLAN: Because at the time I was there, it was impossible to get over the border. Also, one of the things I try to do is to avoid places that everybody knew about. Liberia everybody knew had failed. It had had a civil war. It was intensely covered. That's why I didn't deal with Israel or Syria. I try to deal with places that are either overlooked, but are covered from only one layer of reality, like Egypt or Turkey or Iran, and try to get underneath. You never know what the headlines are going to be. But I try to avoid places that would constantly be in the news, or I felt that people were fed up with reading about it. They knew that place was bad--`Don't tell us any more about it.' Sierra Leone was basically unknown when I went there, in a news sense.
LAMB: A couple years ago, when Richard Nixon was sitting where you are, I remember asking him what, of all the traveling he had done, what was his favorite city in the world, and he said Istanbul. Why would he say that? You were there. You spent a lot of time in Turkey.
KAPLAN: Yes, yeah. First of all, he went to Istanbul probably before I did. Istanbul is increasingly congested, polluted, all of that. But it's a wonderful city, because it's cities that have big bodies of water right in the middle of them are great cities because you can always get away from the traffic and congestion. You can just get on a boat for the equivalent of five cents, take a rickety ship across the Bosporus or across the Golden Horn, sip some tea, and in the middle of a congested, crowded day feel like you're in the middle of an island somewhere. And just--the sea breeze goes by you. It's a city that's built up. So because it's built up, the architecture is like a theatrical panorama. It has the perfect mixture of what's traditionally considered exotic, but with all the Western conveniences. It's, in geographical terms, it's a great city that was meant to be, literally connecting Europe and Asia. You really sense you really get the idea of being stage-struck there, with the city as the main character.
LAMB: How big is it?
KAPLAN: It's the largest city in Europe, if you count it as Europe, but two-thirds of the city are on the European side; one-third is in the Asian side. It increases by several hundred thousand people each year. I believe it's eight million. I'm not sure.
LAMB: You cont...
KAPLAN: It's in the book, but I forgot the figure.
LAMB: I think it was 10 million.
KAPLAN: Yeah, yeah, whatever.
LAMB: You contrast the difference between two Turkish leaders, one that we knew very well because he was on our television screen for a while. Why don't you tell the difference.
KAPLAN: Yes. The difference is between Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who died right before World War II, who we didn't know very well, and the other was Turgut Ozal, who was a short, scruffy man who we got to know very well because he was sort of America's best friend in the Muslim world. He was--like all great men, he was a man of parts. He had combinations that don't normally go together. He always traveled with a laptop computer and a copy of the Koran. He was always deeply religious, very deeply, far more devout than many more radical leaders in the Islamic world, but yet he never saw being a devout Muslim to be in any way contradictory to being not just pro American, but pro-Ronald Reagan.
Ozal would go to Texas and wear a cowboy hat and have a great time at a barbecue. He was what I call a little big man, a man who knew where he came from and had no pretensions. He slurped his tea. He would he would--him and his wife would sleep late in pajamas and watch soap operas on televisions. They --he never made any attempt to appear sophisticated. And because of that, he could be deeply pro-Reaganesque-American, and the Islamists in the shantytowns of Turkey would love him because they knew he was one of them. He wasn't one of these scotch-drinking aristocrats from the capital city of Ankara.
LAMB: What did you think--go ahead.
KAPLAN: Yeah, and I was going to contrast him with Ataturk. Ataturk is the founder of modern Turkey, who was a scotch-drinking aristocrat who grew up in a very multi--eclectic, multicultural environment in Salonika among Bulgarians, Jews, Macedonians, who forged a Turkish state and made it fiercely secular. What Ozal did was, he softened the edge of that secularism without doing away with it. He was the classic compromise figure, and his basic line is, `We can be deeply Islamic, Turkey could be deeply Islamic, but that doesn't mean that we can't have a free-market economy, that we can't be pro-American and pro-Western--there need be no contradiction.'
LAMB: What's your most important memory of Turkey?
KAPLAN: My most important memory would probably be--I described it in this book--of sitting in a mosque in the holy city of Konya in central Antalya, which is Turkey, kind of, Asia Minor, as we--it used to be called when we--when we grew up in school, and listening to an Islamic clergyman, a mullah, talk about Turkey and the West the day after Ozal was buried. I attended Ozal's funeral because I just happened to be in Turkey when he died, and in fact, I'd been with him in Azerbaijan the day before he died. And so the day after the funeral, I went to Konya, and I sat on the carpets in a mosque and talked to some clerics, I just said to them, `Tell me, you know, tell me about Turkey and the West.'
And it was the things they told me, the impression I got from them, it made me aware that Turks are very hospitable, but precisely because they're so hospitable, they expect a lot from their friends, and therefore they're often disappointed, and America had disappointed them at that moment because at Ozal's funeral the Americans had sent no real high-level dignitary. We sent James Baker, who was then a former secretary of state, and, you know, at funerals, diplomacy is everything, protocol is everything. And Clifton Wharton, who was then a deputy secretary of state, given that he was America's best friend in the Muslim world following the death of Anwar Sadat, they expected President Clinton or Secretary of State Christopher or Vice President Gore, and they were just seething with anger. This was a case, I was told in this mosque, when America's only a fair-weather friend. Ozal is no more use for them, so they--so we forget them. They were deeply offended, and in fact, the Islamist Press played up our lack of representation very highly.
LAMB: Before we go on with some of the other countries, if someone's listening to this and they say, you know, 'That sounds like it would be fun to do...'
LAMB: `...what Mr. Kaplan has done.' First of all, on the scale of fun and hard work and difficulty and all that, where would you put this whole...
KAPLAN: To me, fun is hard work because I love what I do. I work for a living, in the sense of what I am is what I do, and to me, the harder traveling is, the more fun it is, because you're happiest when you're getting a lot of information, when you're scribbling down in your notebook. And when you're scribbling down, you're working hardest, because you know you've got to come back and make sense of those notes. So one day of note-taking may mean three weeks in the study writing, organizing it all, finding the right sentence and all of that. That's why you come home from a month of traveling, it takes you three or four months to put it together, sometimes.
LAMB: So let's go back to the beginning. Let's say somebody's listening to this. Start from the very beginning. If you were going to head out on a trip like this, where did you start?
KAPLAN: All right. In terms of my work, how I actually arranged it?
LAMB: Just physically, visa, passports...
KAPLAN: All right. The first thing, take west Africa. I was going to go to about six countries. I needed visas. So I had to go around embassies, west African embassies in Washington, DC, to get visas, and that was a very cumbersome, at times difficult process, because in poor countries there's often much less of a bureaucratic structure. There are no guidelines. Somebody may get a visa; somebody may not.
And to get visas, I had to get a lot of shots, because you couldn't get a visa without an injection, a preventative against--well, for instance, some embassies requested cholera shots, but the cholera vaccine is largely useless, but they requested a shot anyway. So I had to get it signed that I had one, even though that I hadn't; yellow fever, so I had to go around to a--you know, to a medical clinic to get that done.
I had to get maps. I would phone up people who had been there before, you know--`Who's someone I can talk to when I'm there?' You know, `Where should I go?' You know, `What's an interesting part of the country? What's safe.' And then I would make my own travel arrangements, because for each part of the world that, I would use a different travel agent sometime. I found that I couldn't find anyone who could do all of this.
But more than anything, I would read. To me, reading liberates you. It separates you from other travelers. You could be among 500 tourists in a mosque in Turkey, but if you've read 10 books on Turkish culture before coming into that mosque, you're occupying a different realm than the other 499 people because what you're seeing is completely different. It's infused by everything that's happened in the past in that country. How can you observe a present if you don't know everything that's happened up until that present? And you can only do that through reading.
LAMB: What do you take with you?
KAPLAN: All right. I take about one change of clothes. I never bring a tie or dress shoes. Nikes, running shoes, something like that, but I always bring a nice shirt and nice pants, and if I have to go to a diplomatic reception, I fake it, you know? I just you know, I always apologize, you know, `I'm traveling light,' and everybody understands.
LAMB: Just one change of clothes?
KAPLAN: Yeah, one change of clothes and two change of clothes at the most. Usually a few books, that's what weighs down the backpack. A set of toiletries; a small short-wave radio so I can listen to the BBC; a medicine kit with malaria pills and things like that; and you know, a manilla envelope with statistics and, you know, other sorts of information like that; and a water canteen, too.
LAMB: What have you found that's missing?
KAPLAN: In terms of what?
LAMB: When you're traveling you say, `Oh, I wish I had this,' or does that ever happen?
KAPLAN: Oh, what you always miss is, you know, `If I only had the right clothes for this thing or the right jacket,' because temperatures always change. So you're often never comfortable. In west Africa, that wasn't a problem because it was always warm, but in central Asia, you'd go up in the high altitudes and you'd freeze, and you'd need a heavy winter coat to be comfortable, but you couldn't take one along. You're not going to lug a heavy winter coat around just for a few days when it's cold, but the--and then you descend down and it's tropical climate. So you're always feeling jealous at those people who only came for this trip, just to go into those high elevations for, like, a two-week holiday. They're always perfectly prepared.
LAMB: When you took notes, did you have a tape recorder?
KAPLAN: No, I used a lot of Bic pens and notebooks.
LAMB: What kind of a notebook?
KAPLAN: People's Drug notebook--what used to be People's Drug Store, now it's CVS, those kind of thick notebooks that they sell with the spirals.
LAMB: So not the journalists half notebook.
KAPLAN: No, no. Because they wouldn't fit into a pocket easily. And then what I would do is when I'd get about 50 pages of notes, I would photocopy them all and mail them back home. The reason is, because the most interesting observations are often the most subtle. And the most subtle are the ones you're likely to forget the quickest. Yet, you'll go through, like, 10 thoughts in five minutes and you'll say, `Oh, I'm going to remember that.' But a day passes, you can't remember one of them because all new thoughts come. So if you lose your notebook, with this kind of writing, you're finished. You'll have to go back and do it all over again. So the thing I was always paranoid of was not losing my passport or my wallet that can – that’s an inconvenience, but losing the notebook.
LAMB: Did you ever lose Xeroxed notebooks sending back?
KAPLAN: No. No, that never happened.
LAMB: It always came back?
KAPLAN: Yeah. It always came back. And it turned out I'd always throw them away because once I write up, you know, the manuscript, I didn't need the second copy of the Xeroxed notes any more.
KAPLAN: Once it's in the manuscript, then you know, then you're less paranoid about your notebook. In fact, sometimes I'd get so nervous that I wouldn't leave the notebook at home after I got back if I didn't have the Xeroxed copy because that was it. That was everything.
KAPLAN: Nothing else matter.
LAMB: ...the most amount of money you ever carried?
KAPLAN: Three thousand dollars in cash throughout former Soviet Central Asia because at the time I was traveling--this is changing rapidly, no credit cards, hard to cash a travelers check. You needed cash in small denominations. Also because I did that trip--I also went to Iran in that leg of the journey. Iran was spotty--one or two hotels in the country would take a Visa card, one or two Am Ex, but you never knew if you could cash travelers checks more and more. But it wasn't totally certain. So I took a huge amount of cash for that trip in short denominations.
LAMB: Were you ever robbed?
KAPLAN: No. No, I wasn't. I always--I don't believe in money belts. They're uncomfortable. What I do is I just strap it inside my ankle, or under my knee under baggy pants.
LAMB: How does the English language do on a trip like this?
KAPLAN: It does very well. But there are points where it simply doesn't work and where you have to hire someone, trust someone, get to know them, and if it doesn't work, find someone else, which I did often, who would translate for you. And, of course, you miss a lot. You're depend, you know, this person, your interpreting reality in a refracted way through somebody else. But it was my belief that whatever inadequacies there are in my reporting and observations, because it's such a personal book, it'll all come out by the end. By the end of the book, the reader's going to know that this is just one person's view of the world.
LAMB: Where was this photo taken on the jacket of the book?
KAPLAN: In Cairo by the camel market.
KAPLAN: And that's a camel in the background if you widen the photo.
LAMB: Why'd you pick that photo?
KAPLAN: Because I just happen to be there with a friend of mine who's one of Egypt's best photographers. And he just started snapping away, and he made some good photos.
LAMB: Are you married?
KAPLAN: Yes, I'm married.
LAMB: Do you have children?
KAPLAN: I have one son. He's 11 years old.
LAMB: What happens when you leave? How does that go down?
KAPLAN: Well, my wife, Maria, manages the home, manages my office and everything. But then when I'm home, I’m home because I write at home all day. So it's not like when I'm home I go off to the office for eight hours and come home late at night.
LAMB: Do you ever take her with you?
KAPLAN: No, not on these trips.
LAMB: Is there a reason?
KAPLAN: Yes, because I believe it was Kipling who said it and then John le Carre copied Kipling as an epigram, that, `He who travels fastest, travels alone.' It’s become a cliché by now. You can get more done when you're by yourself than you're with someone else. You can decide, like, at 10 at night to go out and do something. You don't have to agree upon it with someone else. You can just get twice as much done by yourself, I believe, than when you're traveling with someone else.
LAMB: You write `Delhi'--in India, `Delhi's air is the most polluted of any city in the world.'
KAPLAN: That's according to air pollution indexes.
LAMB: What's it like?
KAPLAN: It's like a soup, in that sense. You get a headache fast. Policemen wear masks to filter out the air. But I've been in other cities that are close. I mean, Calcutta to me was just as bad. And Mexico City--Teheran is the fourth most polluted city on Earth. And that's another one of the regime's problems that it cannot deal with. I find, having lived in Athens for seven years, which is a very polluted city, you just get headaches a bit more. You need a nap in the afternoon, but you also get used to it, too.
LAMB: Bangkok and Patpong.
KAPLAN: Yes. Patpong is a district in Bangkok which is known to tourists as a red-light district, where there are houses of prostitution, but it's much more complex than that. You'll find a Penguin paperback bookshop right next to a go-go girls bar, right next to a Kodak one-hour development machine, right next to Western products and all of that, and what that showed me is that prostitution in Thailand is very much a machinal, bureaucratic, accepted business like anything else. There's no danger or romance associated with it.
LAMB: You have a statistic here. You say in January of 1988, 0 percent of intravenous drug users in Thailand were HIV positive; in September of the same year, there were 43 percent?
KAPLAN: Yeah, that's according to a US--United States government study
LAMB: In 1988...
LAMB: ...100 Thais were HIV positive. In 1994, 700,000 were.
KAPLAN: Yeah. The point of that is how AIDS is a disease of human vectors. One person who's very promiscuous can spread it to a group of other people who are very promiscuous, and then the disease just takes off like a rocket. Because it's a disease of human vectors, the places that are most developed, like Thailand or like Cote d'Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in west Africa, are most threatened. Example: The Ivory Coast has a very good road system, so people can travel long distances in just one day, so AIDS has spread rapidly throughout the country. It's harder for AIDS to spread in a place like Guinea, which just has dirt roads through a mountainous terrain, because it's hard for an individual to get from one place to another. Thailand, of course, you can travel from one end of the country to the other in a luxury train overnight. So AIDS is a disease of modernity, just like there are diseases of ancient times.
LAMB: Two hundred thousand prostitutes in Thailand.
KAPLAN: According to the figures, yeah.
LAMB: Thirty and 35,000 child prostitutes?
KAPLAN: Yes. There's been a lot written about child prostitution, but that's just one element. The thing about prostitution in Thailand is, it's really impossible to generalize. There's all sorts of awful, abusive things going on--women chained to beds, children being exploited. But there's also, at the top end of it, the other extreme, prostitutes who function like businesswomen, who invest their money on the stock market, use all sorts of preventative measures not to get disease. The most interesting thing I found about prostitution in Thailand was that many of the prostitutes in Bangkok come from one region of the country called Esan in the Northeast.
Thailand has been a great economic success story of the past 30 years, but Esan has been a failure. This is an example of how global statistics are the beginning of knowledge rather than the end of knowledge. They hide a lot of failures in the middle of positive statistics and positive things in the middle of negative statistics.
Esan--what's happened in Thailand is growth has been rampant. The GDP has been rising 8, 10, 12 percent a year. So a wealthy class is created. It's able to buy up land, exploit peasants. Overcrowding, diminishing soil and water resources--the farmers can't make it anymore. So their sons migrate to cities to take jobs as--as factory hands living in shantytowns, and the daughters go to Bangkok, where they can make more money as prostitutes than they can working for the family. They take the money, they make sure not to get sick, they have their customers use condoms and everything. And they send the proceeds back to the family up in Esan, the same way an immigrant would come here, a Mexican immigrant, and send money back to his family in Mexico.
LAMB: When you went to Cambodia, at the end of the chapter, you--you have this scene that you paint about--`Two tomato-colored tour buses pulled up. One unloaded a group of Thais, another a group of Greek tourists. The groups looked alike.' Prosperous--pros--they were middle-class. They had expensive cameras, sunglasses and casual clothes. You write, `Each group contained the usual one or two shouters, 50-year-old men who acted like teen-aged boys.' Have you seen a lot of that?
KAPLAN: Not a lot, but this instance just stuck in my mind because this happened at the site of what has been called the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge did mass executions. So it's sort of a mass grave. There are human bones lying around, human skulls, and this tour group came, two tour buses, and although one was from southeast Asia, one from Europe, one Thai, one Greek, they both looked the same, because middle-class people around the world, and this is something else I learned in my journey, look increasingly the same: The same leisure clothes, the same made by the same factories. The middle-class people around the world are forgoing horizontal bonds of community as vertical state borders tend to dissolve and collapse, kind of in the medieval era, when the aristocracies of the various competing realms had more in common with each other than they had with their own peasants.
So I saw these two very alike middle-class groups, and most of the tourists wanted to learn. They were interested, one, in this sight. But there were a few men in each group who you could tell were kind of like bullies, you know, in the college dorm and were just shouting, `What's this?' They--one actually picked up a thigh bone in the dirt and started, you know, holding it up and laughing and everything. And for them, it was sort of a big joke. And the reason it was because they didn't know the past. They obviously didn't know what had happened here. This was one of the great crimes of the 20th century, less known about than the Holocaust in Europe or Stalin's terror famine in the Ukraine, but one of the great crimes of the century. And what just struck me at the moment is how history is forgotten.
LAMB: How about communications? As you traveled around, how much television did you watch, how much American television did you see?
KAPLAN: I saw a lot of American television. I saw it. I didn't watch it, but I made notes of it, who was watching what. In Egypt and Iran, there was a lot of American television being watched, which surprised me. In other countries, American television didn't surprise me. I did not travel around with a laptop computer. When I got to southeast Asia, I was sorry that I did not, because I would have had no problem anywhere with electricity current, recharging batteries, and I could have been much more efficient with one. But I'm glad I didn't take one along in many of the other places because either the electricity didn't work or it was undependable, there were power surges. So it's true. We're entering an information age, but significant parts of the world are not able to take part, because they're just so far behind. And as populations increase, as the environment deteriorates, this puts more and more pressure on governments, institutions, bureaucracies, infrastructure, and so you see electricity grids and water systems just collapsing in a lot of places.
LAMB: You wrote a lot about toilets.
KAPLAN: Well, I wrote--there's a chapter called Clean Toilets, and I think it's the collapse of empires or whatever, and it's just two pages at the beginning of that chapter, and I talked about it because to me the availability and degree of cleanliness of public toilets may offer insights in terms of the public-“spiritedness” and degree of civil society in that place. And what I found was Iranian toilets were much better maintained than in the former Soviet Union, where they were totally un-maintained. And then I said to myself, you know, `If they can't even maintain that, what does this say about the state of society?' But then I said to myself, `What would someone here think about New York City or Manhattan, where there aren't any, where you have to dodge into a restaurant?'
LAMB: You have a quote here in the chapter on Bangkok, "Clean and well-lit public toilets are certainly easier to find in Bangkok than anywhere I had been in America."
KAPLAN: Yeah. Yeah, that's true.
LAMB: Where would you go and it seems like you wrote a lot about how bad things are in some places.
KAPLAN: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Where would you go if you were going to stand in the spot where you found it to be just the worst, the dirtiest and the mustiest and the, you know, where you just said, `I can't take anymore of this,' or whatever your reaction was?
KAPLAN: It would probably be in a shantytown outside or in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan, in one of the shack towns called Washington or Chicago, where there was corrugated iron; people who had many, many children; many of whom do not go to school; people whose grown children did not go to school or in any way better their lives; where there was no running water, little electricity; disease was rampant; soil was deteriorated; flies were everywhere during the daytime, malarial mosquitoes in the evening. And where people had left rustic, exotic-looking villages to live in this place, because although this place is ugly to us, or to me, there was opportunity here. There were jobs because it was attached to a city, where someone could always find an opportunity, a job; whereas in the village, there was nothing. And this is the story of much of the Third World.
We, in America, lived during an age when people are living --leaving the cities, migration to the suburbs and beyond--the same in Europe. But in sub-Saharan Africa, in large swaths of Asia, people are rushing more and more into deteriorating cities, and the same is true in north Africa. And I would say almost that, `Give me a place where the urbanization rate is high, and I'll show you a place with a lot of problems.' Probably the best example of that, though I don't write about it in the book, is Algeria, which had for 20 years prior to the upheaval there, one of the highest rates of shantytown urbanization anywhere.
LAMB: Have you totaled up the number of countries you've been in the world?
KAPLAN: It's around 75, but it's hard to count because I've been to places like Germany, before and after East Germany. East Germany doesn't exist. Do I count that or don't I? But around 70, 75.
LAMB: On this trip and in this book, you say in the beginning you don't write as much about China...
LAMB: ...as you should have or you would like to.
KAPLAN: Right, sure.
LAMB: How many places did you go to in China?
KAPLAN: I went everywhere in western China. Not all is included in the book, but I didn't go to eastern China, to the China that most people write about. And I used one big city in western China, Urumqi, which is very representative of Chinese cities in the sense it's building rapidly, skyscrapers all over the place, people rushing in to find jobs. Although it's in western China, it's very dynamic and gives one an indication of what the more developed and more known part of China is like.
LAMB: What else did you remember about China? How about people?
KAPLAN: Well, it was interesting. What I saw of China, what sticks in my mind, is how China is an empire more than just an ethnic nation, because many of the people I encountered in China were not Chinese. They were ethnic Turkic Muslim people in a part of China that wasn't really controlled by China for much of its history. And what I learned from that is, though China's age-old and venerable, its position on the map has changed often during history, which means it may happen again.
What I also saw in China was how, one of the themes of this book is the gradual erosion of the state, how at least in this part of China, the state maintained its grip very well, to such an extent that it was midnight, and the lights were still on. It was still light out in the sky or just getting dark, because western China was forced to be on Beijing time, which is kind of if San Francisco was forced to be on Washington time because the federal government you know, directed every aspect of people's lives.
LAMB: You have a Kazakhstan immigration official on the same page where you tell us about the time zone thing, and I gather she said, `How much money do you think I make in this job?'
LAMB: Now was she talking English to you?
KAPLAN: Yes, she was.
KAPLAN: She knew some English.
LAMB: And you didn't answer...
LAMB: ...and then she said, “Seven dollars," she told me. "Seven dollars a month. I hear it's better in New Jersey. I have relatives there, but I'm married to a Kazakh, so I'm stuck."'
KAPLAN: There's a story behind that. In central Asia, you find a lot of mixed marriages, of Russians who married Kazakhs or Uzbeks, during the days of the Soviet Union, when such a marriage was at least officially considered a great thing because they were all Soviet people. This happens in Yugoslavia. You have a lot of--there's a large number of intermarriages between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But then the Soviet empire collapsed, and suddenly these marriages became very unpopular because suddenly you were in a situation where these Turkic peoples realized that their age-old colonial enemy, the Russians, was now that, their age-old colonial enemy, Russians, rather than part of their Soviet brethren. And so people who were married found themselves on different sides of a growing ethnic divide.
LAMB: Marx, Engels...
LAMB: ...Stalin, communism, democracy...
KAPLAN: Marx is interesting, because I thought a lot about Marx in Egypt, not because of Marxism or communism, but because what--and Marx was someone with a lot of interesting ideas, not just communism, and one was his idea of oriental despotism, which basically said that old civilizations that take root along great river valleys, the Ganges in India, the Nile, etc., are so old and well-rooted, with such an entrenched way of doing things that they're hard to change. There's something intractable about them; they're never going to reform. And it's partially because they live along great rivers. The waters have to be appropriated and divided up to make sure everyone gets equal water for their farm field, and that requires a central, autocratic authority which, in turn, leads to a very oppressive state. And that oppressive state, combined with the very age of the civilization and its entrenched way of doing things, simply makes it harder for places like that to evolve in the modern world.
LAMB: What did you think of Cairo?
KAPLAN: Cairo is a great city, but it's changing rapidly. It's being ruralized. The peasants are rushing from the countryside, from the villages in the Delta, into the city, setting up shantytowns, and you see mobile phones, Mercedes Benzes for the rich, and you see stark, awful poverty. Egypt is a place that is going in several directions at once. It's developing a middle class which is more and more internationalized, more and more knowing of everything that happens in the West, on C-SPAN, whatever, and is, therefore, more and more disenchanted with the regime. It--because it's better educated, it demands more, it's harder to satisfy, but while the middle class are harder to satisfy, the sub-proletariat, who had been created from rushing from these villages into the Cairo shantytowns, also become harder to satisfy because, like in India, they're no longer a fatalistic, rural poor. They're now wage earners. They're filled with envy and ambition.
So all levels of the Egyptian society are harder for the government to deal with, to satisfy. Meanwhile, each year there are more and more Egyptians, less and less water to drink. And what that led me to believe is to stay in control from a central source, the government either has to democratize or become more authoritarian. It can't stay where it is. Ten years from now, if Mubarak is still in power, it will be a different kind of a Mubarak. The regime will have evolved in one way or another, slowly.
LAMB: Do you see democracy flourishing anywhere?
KAPLAN: Flourishing anywhere? No. I saw it in difficulty in Turkey, but moving on, keeping the country stable.
LAMB: What about India?
KAPLAN: India it's not flourishing. What's happening is that Delhi is rapidly losing power over the country, and different provinces are going off in their own destiny. Some parts of India are doing very well. Some are doing very badly. The issue I found in many places is not democracy but decentralization. In Thailand it's flourishing.
LAMB: What about the state of the human being as you look back on all this year of traveling to all these countries?
KAPLAN: All right, the debate between optimists and pessimists is basically a false one. Each group is tapping into a different level of reality. For most of the people in the world during much of the time, things have gradually been getting better. One of the messages of this book is that for a critical mass of Third World inhabitants, in more countries than we can deal with, things are going to be very tumultuous and perhaps violent over the next 20 or 30 years. The long-range future may be bright, but the next 20 or 30 years in a significant part of the globe may be very bloody. It's not because of poverty so much. People don't go to war because they're poor. It's because these places are rapidly changing and developing, and developing is always violent,--uneven and painful and cruel. Iran erupted after the best years of its development, and the development Iran saw, the creation of a sub-proletariat, wide discrepancies within the society in the '60s and '70s is now being approximated in places like India and elsewhere.
LAMB: You say you're writing a book about America?
KAPLAN: I've just started, so I have no conclusions or...
LAMB: What's--how are you doing this?
KAPLAN: I'm doing it like this as a kind of Guntheresque book that's part travel, part policy, part history, try to take everything in under 500 pages.
LAMB: Where are you in the process?
KAPLAN: Very impressionistic. I've just made several trips to Mexico. I'm starting in Mexico because I'm trying to discover the United States the way Coronado did in the middle of the 16th century. He came up from a great civilization zone into the arid desert and got as far as central Kansas, only 40 years after Columbus landed on San Salvador.
LAMB: Can I be so blunt as to ask you how do you survive financially through all this time?
KAPLAN: Money from The Atlantic, advances from a publisher and foundations here and there, an occasional speaking fee. It's a matter of putting four and five things together. I have always been, since I left my job in Vermont in 1975, a free-lance writer.
LAMB: Do you ever feel like you're on the edge?
KAPLAN: I'm always on the edge. I have always been on the edge. That's probably the way it'll always be.
LAMB: In the back you tell us, in the acknowledgments, that some of this all started with a seminar organized by the World Policy Institute in New York.
KAPLAN: Well, that's...
LAMB: Or did they get involved in your ideas? I mean, how...
KAPLAN: No, no. There was a small seminar at the World Policy Institute in New York, but this was after the book was nearing completion.
LAMB: But they talked about what you had seen?
KAPLAN: Yeah. In other words, I threw out ideas, and everyone challenged me, so it was a useful process. The book started with an article in The Atlantic Monthly, The Coming Anarchy, and what I tried to do in the book was not so much to try to prove the article, but do what scientists often do, a mop-up operation: Go out and complexify it and make it more subtle and nuanced and even run away from your paradigm.
LAMB: You say that the book could not have been completed without financial assistance from the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
KAPLAN: That's right. Well...
LAMB: What is that?
KAPLAN: The United States Institute of Peace is a congressionally funded organization for studying conflict, one of the things it does, that would serve as an early warning system for policy-makers. So that's what it is. It's bipartisan, neither liberal nor conservative. Congress has to approve its budget.
LAMB: And then you also say that Ed Shirley...
LAMB: ...the pseudonym...
LAMB: ..of a Persian-speaking analyst, formerly at the Central Intelligence Agency, checked the chapters on Iran.
KAPLAN: Yes. This is a person whose real name I cannot divulge. He publishes under the name of Ed Shirley in Foreign Policy magazine, Foreign Affairs magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. He's someone whose Persian is as good as his English, who has a vast library of books on nothing but Persia, and he was a nitpicker. He went over all the sentences on Iran, trying to find errors.
LAMB: Three people endorsed this book: William Showcross...
LAMB: I'm sorry.
LAMB: Peter, I'm not even going to try to pronounce this.
KAPLAN: Right. Peter Matthiessen.
LAMB: It is Matthiessen. It looks...
LAMB: ...more difficult than that. And Les Gelb, president of the Council
on Foreign Relations. Were those your ideas?
KAPLAN: No, no. What happens with this is, the editor of Random House will send out copy of books to a number of people, and some will reply and some won't. William Shawcross is a very noted British writer for the New York Review of Books who's written books on Cambodia relief aid. Peter Matthiessen is a very well-known travel writer for many decades. And Les Gelb is a former New York Times columnist.
LAMB: Now Tina Rosenberg endorsed "Balkan Ghosts."
LAMB: Is "Balkan Ghosts" still useful for someone trying to understand what's going on over in that part of the world?
KAPLAN: Yes, it is, but not in terms of policy. You don't want to judge whether we should bomb or shouldn't, whether we should stay in for more than 12 months or not, based on "Balkan Ghosts." That's not what it's about. It's a subjective travelogue, giving people a sense of the history and ethnic conflict. It's a beginning, not an end. And one of the things that upset me was how people would use "Balkan Ghost" as an argument for one policy or another in the Balkans. Books, travel books, especially, should never be used that way.
LAMB: Robert E. Kaplan's the author. This is the book, "The Ends Of The Earth: Journey At The Dawn Of The 21st Century," and we thank you for joining us.
KAPLAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.