I was born in Haiti and raised in New York and Paris. After attending French schools, I graduated in 1974 from the University of Geneva, where I studied political science, with minors in philosophy, economics and law.
My first job was as a reporter for Suburban Trends, a twice-weekly in Butler, N.J. that covered a couple of dozen suburbs in the northern part of the state. I soon specialized in sewers, a beat that attracted few rivals but that I felt was the key to the burning issue of the day: how the early Homo Suburbanus tried to limit the number of his followers by not building more sewer plants, so only houses with lots big enough to accommodate septic tanks could be built.
An entanglement with a woman twice my age resulted in a move to Los Angeles, where I briefly served as a stringer for the New York Times, garnering exactly one byline in six months (stringers were not then given by lines just because they wrote the stories; we mostly wrote anonymously).
In 1977, after a year spent in New York freelancing for very small publications, I landed my first daily job as a reporter at The San Juan Star, a now-defunct Scripps-Howard paper in Puerto Rico. I notably faked depression to be admitted one Sunday night in the state psychiatric hospital in order to document the awful conditions there. I spent three days inside, the first in a thorazine-induced haze. Though I only told my editors of the stint afterwards, they were kind enough to print a five-part series, with four on the front page, that resulted in some minor improvements in the hospital and the firing of one stick-wielding orderly. I subsequently received a Scripps-Howard Writer of the Month award.
Three years later, I moved to the big-time: a correspondent job in the local bureau of United Press International, which had just been given away by Scripps-Howard and was still an exciting place to work. I covered the coup in Surinam that introduced the long Bouterse dictatorship; the seizure by the M-19 of a group of diplomatic hostages in Bogota; the trial of Jonestown survivor Larry Layton in Georgetown, Guyana; the kidnapping to Barbados and failed extradition of Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber; a coup attempt in Haiti; an international conference in Havana; the coup in, and subsequent invasion of, Grenada, and a few more riveting and long-forgotten stories.
In 1982, I followed the violinist who would become my first wife to Birmingham, Alabama, where I served as a copy editor for a year at the Post-Herald. In October, 1983, I started at the Paris headquarters of Agence France-Presse as a staff writer for the English-language service, editing and translating wire news. Two years later, I was sent to Nigeria as Lagos bureau chief, missing a coup by two weeks and covering one of the calmest periods of a turbulent country’s history.
After returning to Paris, in 1988, I took a year off, bought a Pearson Alberg 35 sloop in San Diego and sailed to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Society islands. I ended up in Hawaii, where I sold the boat and flew home. In 1991, I took a month off and covered the start of the war in Nagorny Karabakh between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis for the Washington Times.
In 1993, AFP sent me to Moscow to learn Russian. I took another year off in 1994 and spent it traveling around the former Soviet Union. I interviewed Lukashenko for the Washington Times the day before his election to the Belarus presidency, sailed Lake Baikal for Sailing magazine, traveled to the Kurile Islands for Business Week, and covered elections in Kazakhstan.
Unable to get posted to Russia because of a chronic case of tendonitis in the arms, I finally quit the desk job in 1997 and moved to Brussels to write a book on the North Pole, to which I traveled five times via Russia. I even organized my own expedition there, the First Expedition to Nowhere: Riding the Polar Treadmill, which got me five pages in Conde Nast Traveler. It’s still my favorite place.
In 2000, I moved to Almaty to string for the New York Times, whose previous correspondent has recently quit. I stayed there until 2006, traveling to other parts of Central Asia and covering the start of the war in Afghanistan for the Washington Times. I wrote many stories about the desiccation and revival of the Aral Sea and the overfishing of the Caspian sturgeon. I did one on bio-weapons for the New York Times magazine and in 2005, attained journalistic nirvana: I made the front page with my coverage of the third post-Soviet revolution, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution.
Remarried and with one baby girl, we moved to Honolulu in 2006, where my wife gave birth to a second one. I continued writing for the Times and Science, notably about the oceans and climate change. I was divorced in 2008 and when my ex-wife moved to Washington D.C. in 2009, I followed. In 2010, I returned to Kazakhstan to string for the Wall Street Journal, but moved last after less than a year to spend more time with my daughters. Now I write mostly about ocean issues and Kazakhstan.