Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has a reputation for busy, fast-paced globetrotting. But no one has ever been through a trip quite like this one.
I accompanied Mrs. Clinton on her just-completed 12-day, 27,000 mile trip to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Counting the refueling stops we visited 14 cities in 12 countries.
It was the type of trip you would take when the doctor says you have two weeks to live. Get through the bucket list before time runs out.
The adventure was an unforgettable mix of cultures, countries and time zones. There were moments that took your breath away, and moments when you wanted to take someone else's breath away. From planes to palaces we sped off in motorcades, we had to dodge flying fruit in Alexandria, and we were saved by a pair of pajama bottoms in Mongolia.
But for the tireless Mrs. Clinton it was just another diplomatic jaunt, albeit the most intensive one even she has taken. She manages to keep her composure in spite of a brutal, grueling schedule.
On the itinerary, Paris, France; Kabul, Afghanistan; Tokyo, Japan, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Hanoi, Vietnam; Vientiane, Laos; Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia; Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt; and Jerusalem, Israel. Plus refueling stops in Almaty, Kazakhstan; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Shannon, Ireland.
And we did it all in 12 days. That means each day we logged the equivalent of flying across the United States. The mornings were early, the evenings late, and sleep was the most precious commodity.
The trip was unusually intense and diverse even for State Department standards. Mrs. Clinton would speak at conferences and meet with foreign leaders and civil society members.
The Friends of Syria conference happened to be in Paris, nowhere near Syria. Same for the Afghanistan conference, which took place in Tokyo, a long way from Afghanistan. At least the South East Asian Nations conference took place in Cambodia, an actual South East Asian country.
As long as we were on the road, why not stop in to see President Karzai in Kabul, President Morsi in Cairo and President Netanyahu in Jerusalem? And since no US Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles has been to Laos, let's stop there too, a record setting 102nd country Mrs. Clinton has visited.
When the Secretary of State travels, a television pool usually goes along. It was ABC's turn for this pool. In a rare coincidence, ABC was also assigned as pool for Mrs. Clinton's trip to China, Bangladesh and India just two months ago. So this was my second round the world trip with her in two months.
We fly on a military jet, an Air Force version of a commercial Boeing 757 passenger plane. The front of the plane, what would be the first class section on the commercial version, is taken by crew and communications gear. Then Mrs. Clinton gets her own cabin which is like a little conference room. The remainder of the plane seats staff, security agents and news media.
Not counting the crew, there are only about 40 passengers who travel on the plane. Most seating is like domestic business class, except for the last two rows where the press sits, which is coach seating.
The food on the plane ranges from acceptable to good. There has been a move under the Obama administration to eat healthier. Most of the meals involve chicken, turkey, or food like bacon made from turkey. All the food is taken on board at the beginning of the trip and the meals are cooked and prepared on the plane.
Sometimes at the beginning of a flight segment Mrs. Clinton will come to the press section to chat for a bit. It's all off the record. There are also some background briefings on the various stops by State Department officials also on board.
Our first stop was Paris. We flew during the day which meant we arrived at our hotel after midnight. It's very frustrating to be in Paris when you arrive so late and you have to check out by 8 am. The US government can usually negotiate a good rate at foreign hotels. Not in Paris.
My room at the Westin Place Vendome cost $1,000 a night and it was nothing special. The four hours of sleep I got came to $250 an hour. At least breakfast was included.
By evening we were on our way from Paris to Kabul, a stop we could not make public until we arrived there. The security situation in Afghanistan is not good. We had to ride in armored vans, each one with a security agent in the passenger seat holding a machine gun in his hands. You must go through several armed checkpoints to get to the US Embassy, NATO headquarters and the Presidential palace.
We didn't spend the night there, instead heading off to Tokyo. It was along first two days of the trip. From Thursday to Sunday most of us only got a few hours sleep.
The events in Tokyo go off as planned. We stayed two nights at the hotel which means we had an opportunity to get laundry done. Only two times on this trip did we stay more than one night in a hotel. So you plan your packing on where you will be able to do laundry.
Next stop, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where the TV pool faces its first problem. Mrs. Clinton was to make a big speech to a women's group. One of the guards at the Government House noticed our camerawoman was wearing jeans and sneakers, both prohibited in such an important place.
There was no way he was going to let her in. In a bit of quick thinking one of the State Department staffers had her carry-on bag in the motorcade that contained pajamas and a pair of slippers. So after a dash to the car and a quick change the jeans and sneakers are replaced by pajama bottoms and a pair of slippers two and a half sizes too big. She's in.
Where did we eat in Mongolia? A British pub, of course. It turns out that the Mongolian beef barbecue we think of in the US is not available in Mongolia. So the Embassy recommended a British pub near our hotel, owned by a Scotsman and managed by an American. It was a great experience but certainly one we never expected to have in Mongolia.
The next day we're off to Hanoi. I had been there once before a few years ago. If you're old enough to remember the Vietnam War, like I am, there's a certain feeling that comes over you when you first go there. My camerawoman had lost friends in the Vietnam War. Landing in Hanoi was something she had never expected to do in her lifetime. She had tears in her eyes as the plane touched down.
Mrs. Clinton made an otherwise un-newsworthy speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi. It was the end of another long day and almost near the end of her speech Mrs. Clinton began a coughing fit that would not stop. She had to end her speech early.
Later, as I looked through the video of the speech to decide which parts to feed back to the US, I felt the coughing fit was good television so I sent it along with the other news elements of the day. It was the only piece of video that got used in America.
Laos, our next stop, provided the most moving experience. We visited a place called COPE, Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. It provides artificial arms and legs to people most of whom have been injured from unexploded bombs dropped by the US during the Vietnam War.
The US dropped cluster bombs, a big bomb that carries a lot of little apple-sized bomb lets. Many of those bomb lets never exploded. Laotians are still finding them, picking them up, and loosing arms, legs and eyes when they explode.
Mrs. Clinton was moved. She couldn't understand why we haven't developed better equipment to detect and destroy these bombs. She met a 20-year-old man who lost his sight and both forearms when his friend found one of these cluster bombs and, not knowing what it was, handed it to him. The young man, in broken English, told the Secretary how glad he was to meet her. He made an impression on all of us.
We don't spend a night in Laos, instead heading off to Cambodia where we have to nights at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. It's a beautiful hotel with a nice pool which, of course, I never get to use. But since we're there two nights it's an opportunity for laundry.
It has been hot every place we have ventured, sometime over 100 degrees. And since these are diplomatic meetings I wear a suit and tie instead of casual clothes. It's hot, sweaty and unpleasant, especially when you're lugging 45 pounds of equipment. You try to change clothes when you can, go through a lot of laundry, and then try to explain to your expense account bosses why you spent so much money on laundry.
Phnom Penh was not what I expected. It was much more modern. They held the South East Asian Nations conference at this large new marble building called the Peace Palace. We have nothing so grand in the United States.
A day and a half of meetings goes off as planned. Mrs. Clinton is cold from the air conditioning and wears a shawl through some of the meetings.
I'm looking forward to our next stop. Siem Reap, not because of the meetings and speeches Mrs. Clinton has there, but because we might have an opportunity to visit the temple at Angkor Wat, one of the world's major tourist sites.
We arrive in Siem Reap in the early afternoon and go through a full schedule of meetings that ends with a dinner speech. She eats delicious Cambodian and other Asian specialties. They brought in pizza for the press. That's right, we are in Siem Reap, Cambodia, eating pizza for dinner.
Mrs. Clinton already has visited Angkor Wat so she's not going on the tour. The rest of us have to get up at 3:30 a.m. in time to get over there for sunrise, and to get back before Mrs. Clinton begins her official day. So if I go right to bed I can get six hours sleep. But no. Mrs. Clinton decides this is the evening she wants to have cocktails with the traveling press.
You don't want to miss a cocktail party with Mrs. Clinton. I'm old enough to remember when people would say they would rather attend a foreign policy speech by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger than do pretty much anything else. I couldn't understand why.
But this was the second cocktail party I've been to with Mrs. Clinton and I can tell you that her knowledge and grasp of foreign policy is impressive. She knows the issues and she knows the people involved in the issues. It's fascinating to listen to her. You may disagree with her politics, but she works tirelessly to advance the foreign policy goals of the United States, and to fight for the rights of women and oppressed minorities around the world.
While I can't report what is said at the cocktail party, we talk about a wide range of issues, usually centered on the trip, but also including Syria and US politics. The off the record sessions give her a chance to open up a little more. And she loves talking foreign policy. Even though everyone was tired, this session went on for an hour.
So I sleep for three hours and make it to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise over the temple. I thought our little group would have the place to ourselves. Wrong. There were over a thousand people there at 5 a.m.. The entrance looked like the ticket gate at Disney World.
It's certainly an impressive sight when the sun comes up over the temple. We take our pictures and then walk inside the temple to see more. On the way back I decided to take a tuk tuk, an open air taxi. Some guy on a moped pulls a carriage that can take up to four passengers. The cost for the 15 minute ride is $2 per person.
Now our focus turns from Asia to Middle East peace. We're on our way to Cairo to meet with the newly elected President Morsi. It's a beautiful sunny day flying into Cairo. But I must say the view is not impressive. There is no color. Everything looks beige, the color of sand.
Mrs. Clinton has her meetings with Egyptian government officials and then we go to our hotel where we find an anti-Clinton demonstration by a group of very vocal and noisy Christians. It's surprising to see a demonstration against Mrs. Clinton, who is seems to be universally liked abroad.
But these Christians feel the US has taken sides with the Muslims in the Egyptian elections and the Christians are going get sold out. It's a loud demonstration but non violent and no one is fazed by it.
The next day, en route to the port city of Alexandria to reopen the US consulate, I sense something is not right. The security agents on the plane are putting on small flak jackets under their shirts. I can't understand why flak jackets would be needed in Alexandria. Then about 20 minutes before we land, the State Department press handler with us announces they have fewer vehicles available for the motorcade. Some staff and press would have to wait on the plane.
This too doesn't make sense. This stop was planned well in advance, why wouldn't they have enough cars for the motorcade? When we got into the motorcade the situation became more evident.
The motorcade was made up entirely of armored cars. That's why they had fewer vehicles available. So now we're headed to Alexandria in armored cars with our security agents wearing flak jackets. Does someone want to tell us what's going on?
It turned out there were demonstrators outside the consulate, the same noisy group of people who feel the US is siding with the Muslims. They had to move the reopening ceremony from the outside courtyard to the inside main hall. We get into the consulate without any problems. We can hear the demonstrators but we can't see them on the other side of the building.
When it came time to leave, they turned the motorcade around to make it easier for Mrs. Clinton's portion to get out. But they moved the staff and press vans onto the street so we could join the motorcade after it left the secure driveway of the consulate.
This decision provided the scariest and most tense moments of the trip. We had to walk outside onto the street 20 feet away from angry demonstrators to get into our cars. We had a group of Egyptian riot police with shields and batons that would walk with us to provide a buffer between us and the demonstrators. I was concerned the sight of the police could further inflame the demonstrators.
As soon as we walked out the demonstrators started throwing things; water bottles, fruit and shoes, a symbol of great disrespect in that culture. No one was injured and we all got safely into our armored vans.
Now off to Jerusalem. Three cities in one day. We started in Cairo, went to Alexandria and wound up in Jerusalem.
As is often the case, we check into our hotel around midnight. I have at least two hours of work to do before I can go to sleep. And we have to be up and out by 8 am. The next time I will see a bed is two days later back home in Washington.
The schedule in Jerusalem goes off as planned, eight events, three interviews and a news conference. Israeli security controls the hotel and they are very thorough. It takes a long time to get your bags searched. And once you leave a secure area it's difficult to get back inside, I was a prisoner in a room for four hours waiting for Mrs. Clinton to do some interviews.
But no one got too upset because this was our last day and we would finally be on our way home. Thirteen hours and 40 minutes of flying with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, and we touch down at Andrews by 7:30 am Tuesday.
There were some bumps on our trip, personality conflicts, stress, lack of sleep, lost items, irritability. But the work got done, the TV networks got the video they needed and everyone was happy in the end.
It was an adventure I wouldn't have missed for anything. And by the way, Mrs. Clinton has a trip to Africa coming up soon.