When we think of travel, non-expats tend to think of vacations. Which were, in case you’ve forgotten, those pre-pandemic trips with friends and the fam to the beach or to our favorite cities. But as an expat journalist, I’ve been fortunate to get paid to travel the world for a big portion of my life. In that context, I’ve seen the most exotic places traveling on business, which I think a lot of expats forget to classify as fun.
I’m not saying you should do what I did unless you have a high tolerance for rugged living and low expectations for remuneration. But I am saying that maybe if you look at your own expat life, it might be more adventurous than you think.
So I decided – in lieu of yet another pandemic travel post – to recommend some of the places I was paid to visit, which include some of the most exotic and dangerous destinations on the planet.
Sadly, some of my early images have been lost to multiple moves in 30-plus years. But I was able to go back, back into time and find some of my work from Europe and the Middle East.
No one has ever gone to vast, industrial Nagoya for fun, but they should. I went years ago as a small-town newspaper reporter covering a Kentucky man, Tommie Wolf, training at Toyota City. Toyota City is the automaker’s vast complex in this city in southern Honshu about 200 miles west southwest of Tokyo. Tommie was going to work for INOAC, which supplied dashboards to Toyota’s then-new plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. INOAC executives were anxious for him to experience the zero defect manufacturing methods for which Japanese automakers are justifiably renown.
Yes, we spent interminable hours waiting for Toyota executives to agree to let me cover him. But once we got a green light, Tommie’s handlers took us everywhere, including to fantastic unmarked restaurants in back alleys, to the ocean to see how seaweed was harvested and to several temples, including Atsuta Shrine and Nagoya Castle.
Everything about that trip was remarkable, from the kindness of strangers – one of whom invited us into her house for a funeral! – to the authentic foods such as cuttlefish and fugu outsiders rarely get to try. And, yes, we two Kentucky boys had Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan, which was exactly like what we’d grown up with. What a country.
The city of Nagoya is exciting and dynamic, especially the Sakae District. On my list of places to revisit and if you ever get the chance, go for it!
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
In 1991, I was working at a different paper at the same chain when my editors sent me to Saudi to cover soldiers from Fort Knox, Kentucky deploying to the First Gulf War. It wasn’t my first war or my first trip to the Middle East. But it was a fortuitous trip, because I hooked up with Saudi Aramco execs who were keen to show me the Saudi that was off-limits to most foreigners.
I had studied Arabic and was itching to use it. But when I met my main Aramco host, he introduced himself not with “kaif ha’a” (how are you?) but as a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Go Badgers. True story.
We drove from the port area of Daharan at about 100 miles an hour in a Chevy Suburban to the camel markets in Hofuf. It was there that a Bedouin kid snatched one of my cameras, an old SLR, and ran off into the warren of tents. The Aramco guys saw it happened and were furious. They wanted to go into the tents and drag the kid out. With visions of a 10-year-old getting his hand chopped off, I told them to relax … that I had plenty of cameras, and the kid was welcome to the beat-up Pentax.
On the way to Hofuf, we saw the real Saudi away from the major cities including one of Muhammed’s forts. At the time, there was no such thing as a tourist visa for Saudi. Other than for business, only Muslims making the Hajj to Mecca were allowed in.
Now, Saudi not only has a tourist visa, they have a crazy cool tourism campaign. This country is another destination with it all – diving in the Red Sea; endless desert vistas and sophisticated cities. I give the KSA a 10.
For my first bureau assignment as a photographer/reporter at Stars and Stripes, we – my wife and Dispatches co-founder Cheryl Boyd and daughters Lucy and Lale – lived in Izmir from 1999 to 2003. We spent every weekend, and I mean every weekend, exploring the entire country from remote ancient mountaintop ruins to Turkey’s fabulously modern cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
Every single day was an adventure and I took my family on travel assignments.
On the work side, I saw cities such as Adana, home to U.S. Air Force operations at Incirlik Air base, and Gaziantep that no tourist ever sees. I got arrested by Turkish security operatives on the Iraq/Turkey border trying to sneak into Iraq and hook up with the Kurdish militias, but that’s a story for another time. The places I’ll never forget are in the east, including Mardin and the glorious pool of Abraham in Urfa. I could write a book about all the places you should visit in Turkey.
But here are my Top 10, many of which came from travel story assignments.
In 1999, Stars and Stripes sent me on my first deployments to the Balkans to cover American soldiers in the KFOR and SFOR peacekeeping missions.
The highlights were:
Kosovo is home to the world’s ugliest city, Pristina. The city is full of Brutalist architecture courtesy of Tito. But there were several places worth seeing, including Prizren, basically a Turkish town transplanted to Kosovo. Unlike the rest of the country, which is among the dirtiest I’ve ever experienced, Prizren was well-tended and neat in the Turkish tradition. And the food was fantastic. I even got to use my Turkish to translate for my translator, who spoke Serbo-Croatian. Hardly a tourist destination, but a memorable place I’d never gotten to have seen otherwise.
Kosovo has mountains and several ski resorts, so who knows … maybe I’ll get there again. Apropos of nothing, Rita Ora was born in Kosovo, and Dua Lipa’s parents are Kosovar-Albanian, though she was born in London.
Bosnia is gorgeous. Corrupt, yes, but gorgeous, with mountains and the very cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo. I got to know Bosnia best with this guy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who you might heard of from the movies. I was assigned to jump in his Black Hawk and fly with him around Bosnia visiting U.S. troops. So I saw a lot of the country I would never have seen without airlift.
Another “I shall return.”
Circa 2000, very, very few tourists made it to Macedonia. We had offices in Skopje to cover Kosovo to the north. But somewhere along the line, a civil war broke out in Macedonia, and I remember sitting in pastures above the battles drinking beer with the locals, watching the fighting and rooting for “my team” like a fan at a football game.
Skopje had lots of antique stores at the time and a huge Turkish market. Lots of high-end cafés and even a Playboy club. Okay, the Playboy club was a front for Bulgarian mobsters and prostitutes … but that’s another story for another time. Overall, Macedonia was so different from any place I’d ever been I’d still recommend it if you’re in the neighborhood.
I was in Macedonia when the 11 September 2001 terror attacks happened, and I knew my time in the Balkans was over.
After 9/11, the Boyds moved to Baumholder, Germany to cover the 1st Armored Division of the U.S. Army.
On 17 August, 2003, I got on a C-130 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. A few hours later, I was sitting in the 4 a.m. gloom of Baghdad International Airport and the beginning of four years I’d never forget. In the madness, though, I discovered Baghdad, which is a magical city, though not the city of Alladin and 1001 Nights I imagined it to be as a kid in Kentucky.
Saddam Hussein leveled a lot of the city and rebuilt it in an architectural style best described as 20th-Century Heinous. But, in the early days, we were able to drive around the city and see the markets and eat in the fabulous restaurants, including the best pizza place in the world. In the course of four rotations (or maybe more, I can’t remember), I covered thousands of miles on missions from Kut to the south up to Tikrit and ad-Dawr in the north; from Ramadi and Habbaniyah on the west to the Iran border on the east. There were haunting moments, including when we entered the palm groves around ancient villages on the Euphrates that hadn’t changed since Hammurabi. As we took it all in from our Humvee, a soldier looked at me and mouthed one word: “Biblical.”
I slept in multiple Saddam palaces including at Uday’s Love Shack on lush section of the Tigris running through the center of Baghdad and at Saddam’s palace in his hometown of Tikrit. In fact, I’m pretty sure I spent far more time in his palaces than he did, because Saddam usually slept in a series of modest houses to avoid assassination.
Fellow Stripes reporter Jon Anderson and I even went to an English Men’s Club near the Palestine Hotel and spent an afternoon drinking whiskey and bourbon while trading stories with a group of of spies, businessmen and assorted rogues.
Other than a couple of times where I was nearly blown up or shot, Baghdad was fascinating and the definition of exotic. If things ever calm down in Iraq, I will go back and buy the Judaica I missed out on, including perfect silver salt cellars crafted by Baghdad’s once sizable Jewish community.
Okay, this bit is probably classified, so don’t read it unless you have SCI clearance. I was working as a civilian intelligence operative in 2006 for this, ah, company and I ended up in Yemen doing, ah, research. Anyway, I had a little down time and I can say that Yemen’s capital Sana’a is the most exotic and enchanting place I’ve ever visited. The icing on a wedding cake architecture there is nothing like anything you’ll ever see anywhere else.
When the wars die down and stability returns, go. Just go. And chew some qhat for me.
I saved the best for last. My cousins, who grew up in Iran, used to talk about going to Afghanistan for fun. I never understood that until I went to Afghanistan in 2003. I was instantly hooked on this place that’s my pick for the most beautiful and diverse country in the world, and I’ve been to a lot of countries.
On one deployment, I hooked up with a squadron of CH-47 Chinooks and flew the ring flights that supplied U.S. bases from Bamiyan on the north down to Qalat in the south near Kandihar. So, I saw almost all of Afghanistan either from Humvees or from helicopters and I never got bored. So many incredible experiences from raiding warlords’ castles in Qalat to eating dinner with CIA Special Activities Division operators in Gardez to flying through high mountain passes at the absolute operating ceilings of CH-47s.
With towering mountains, verdant valleys and unforgettable landscapes, Afghanistan could be generating billions in tourist dollars. Instead, 20 years after we invaded, it’s still ruled by the same Taliban who gave aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden.
I would rate at zero the chances that Afghanistan is ever stable enough to visit as a tourist. But of all the places I’ve visited, I most sincerely hope I’m wrong about Afghanistan.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, selling Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2013.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.