One-way ticket to Mexico
By the time I determined I’d fly somewhere, anywhere, I had nothing to lose. I’d jump on a plane, rack up some credit card debt, and if it didn’t work out, well, I had a Master’s degree in physics to fall back on. While I hadn’t studied physics for the money, I was now well aware that it would be the mattress on which I could very comfortably land should things go awry. In that sense, the credential played a fantastically important role in my journalism career.
I devoured books by journalists and, in 2010 on graduating university, got in touch with anyone with a foreign byline, especially in South America which I’d tentatively chosen. One particularly kind and practically useful response came from Aidan Hartley, who I’d seen presenting a Channel 4 documentary program from Colombia:
Go wherever there's conflict and few hacks, mate. Colombia seems a good base. Lovely country. Not cheap. Big business story there too, which always keeps a freelancer alive. Or what about Mexico? That would be splendid. If you're working for a paper, move around it as much as possible—front, back, features, business, sports. The world is full of snooty political reporters but very few who are versatile. And get as many strings to your bow including radio, magazines and TV if you can. Good luck and send me a postcard. What a lovely life you have ahead of you!
His book, Zanzibar Chest, was the only one I took on my trip. On reading it, two months before flying, I wrote, “Being a young foreign correspondent really is the best job in the world.” I’d feel that same sentiment and excitement myself in the not too distant future—and still now believe it to be true.
With no real insight or thought, I chose Mexico as a destination. It was a foreign country and I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I spoke a few words of Spanish, having been on a backpacking trip around South America two years earlier. Also, from there, I could easily move on.
During an internship later in 2010 at The Times of London, an investigative reporter with whom I got on well, Dominic Kennedy, got me in touch with Richard Beeston. I didn’t know it at the time but Richard was one of the country’s last great foreign editors. Unlike most of the fresh-faced, out-of-college types now running foreign desks in London, Beeston had actually worked abroad—Lebanon, Chechnya, Iraq. His legend was enhanced by a blurring with that of his father, also named Richard, an intrepid and storied Cold War correspondent based in Washington, D.C. Richard liked the idea of Mexico and, it turned out, would have a hole there as Ruth Maclean, who was filing to TheTimes from Mexico and one of those who’d give me advice, was moving on. Richard wanted stories that British readers would care for: the drug war, primarily.
“Don’t ignore the British tabloids,” he said, telling me never to be a snob. “You’ll need money so go to whoever pays most. I’ll never look down on a journalist who does that… They love consular stories about Brits arrested abroad.” It was good advice which would keep me afloat in the early months. When I finally internalized what he’d said, prompted by a Reuters bureau chief in Caracas, it would transform my career. Richard clearly saw in me a little of the adventurer he had been at that age. He encouraged me that things would work out and wished me luck. We’d be in touch.
After seeing my grandparents in Slough and stopping for lunch in the shadow of Windsor Castle next to the River Thames, my mom dropped me off at Heathrow. She was anxious and wasn’t sure when she’d see me next. I was anxious but not mature enough to know it, quiet and short-tempered, my mom would later tell me. I spoke to a friend on the phone and didn’t realize the time until he asked if I shouldn’t be boarding yet. The plane was scheduled to take off in fifteen minutes and I was a long way from the gate. I sprinted.
I lugged my backpack up to the top floor of the hostel on Mexico City’s main square and into the lockers of a dormitory. The Zócalo had been a ceremonial center since Aztec times and now housed the presidential palace, some high-end hotels, and, nearby, countless small food and drink outlets. It was a huge plaza, always bustling with tourists. My hostel looked over it though I spent more time outside than in. In those first few days of October 2010, I’d wander the maze of streets surrounding the Zócalo, failing to find fajitas, which of course aren’t actually eaten in Mexico, and failing to read the local newspapers, which of course weren’t in a language I could read. I’d spend the evenings partying with English-speaking backpackers and trying out my rudimentary Spanish on locals.
I’d done the backpacking thing two years earlier so I had plenty in common with the other twentysomethings passing through my hostel. But I was here to become a foreign correspondent. I spent the first few days calling and emailing every international editor I could find, telling them where I was, pitching ideas, and letting them know that I was open to theirs.
I was excited for my new start, though the lack of a plan was beginning to show.
“I sometimes wonder what I'm doing here,” I wrote to a friend, adding that I felt lonely at times; it was a sentiment I’d feel again and again over the coming decade, be it in a major move like this or a quick reporting trip. Emails and Skype calls came at me from the UK, so I was very much still thinking in that time zone; I hadn’t yet made it to the Americas in anything but body.
I knew I needed to find somewhere to live. Everyone pointed me to Condesa, a hip area populated by wealthy Mexicans and foreigners; its residents were somewhat disparagingly called fresas, or strawberries. Scouring Craigslist, I found a cheap room that looked perfect. I emailed and quickly got a response from a woman who, incredibly, was also a reporter—though Jean Guerrero had stronger credentials than I did, working with The Wall Street Journal.
We’d both just arrived in Mexico City with similar ambitions—and she wanted a roommate.
I went over immediately and found her in a large penthouse with a wrap-around view of one of the city’s most beautiful parks and a supermarket next door. My bedroom would be a tiny side room with no windows, no bed, and no door. But it was just $250 a month.
Two days later, I stuffed my backpack into a taxi in the Zócalo, said goodbye to the friends with whom I’d enjoyed a few nights out, and moved in. My angst was now channeled into excitement. Not only had I found somewhere to stay, I was meeting the right people. Jean knew other correspondents there and no doubt we’d be able to help each other in our work.
The room could fit nothing more than a small bed, which I’d have to buy. I thought about putting up a curtain for a little privacy from the living room but never got around to it. I was at that stage of life where nothing else really mattered. Within a few years, when I’d made freelance journalism work financially, the joke would be that I stayed in more luxurious hotels than the most senior staff correspondents
I would a couple of years later be touched when Jean said she had been impressed by my decisiveness in moving in so rapidly, in a blog she wrote about that period. Though, she said, she thought I was crazy to think I’d succeed. “But I underestimated the power of Girish’s determination and energy,” she wrote. “All I could see was that Girish’s batteries never stopped; I would come home from my 9-5 job every evening to find him pacing around the living room, talking to sources or editors on the phone, or pounding away at his laptop’s keyboard. I have few memories of seeing him do anything else — he was always either talking or typing. The rare moments when he was not practically dancing with positive energy never lasted more than 15 minutes; he never let himself feel discouraged or disappointed for longer than that.”
However, it was tougher than I let on. What Jean didn’t know was that I was living hand to mouth. I had to start earning.
To bring money in ahead of the trip, I’d applied to journalism jobs in London. My three-page CV included significant details about my internships as well as various bar and waiting jobs and a supermarket gig; the only things missing were the $25-a-week paper route and the job I had throwing rocks at hundreds of point-of-sale machines in a shipping container, in order to break them up for recycling. I spent the summer working part-time at a small trade magazine, Motor Finance, in London, commuting in from Slough a few times a week. I knew nothing at all about car financing. I was paid $160 a day to “report” on the motor finance industry, about which I knew nothing. It seemed that the magazine’s readership consisted solely of people I would interview—and, as I’d not known enough to question them or say anything negative, everyone was happy.
While the income didn’t dent my student loan, or teach me much about real journalism, I ploughed the cash into airline tickets, a Canon SLR camera, and a MacBook Pro, with the hope that freelance work in the coming months would eventually cover everything. I had every intention of working in all kinds of media—text, radio, TV, and photos, as Aidan Hartley and others had recommended. I had some experience of audio production; I’d long enjoyed photography; and video, well, I’d work it out. And I’d need to, as my bank balance was hovering just above zero. An overdraft and credit cards would have to keep me afloat until I could make real revenue.
From my room in Jean’s Condesa apartment, I sent near daily emails to Richard at The Times of London and his foreign desk, featuring not only story ideas but sometimes the full story itself. Why not? I figured. They had no idea whether I could write, and I had nothing to lose. Whatever I wrote would add to the content on my own website. I’d call if I’d not heard anything within an hour or two. I was too young to consider that my often not overly exciting stories in Mexico weren’t the center of their world—or that receiving a phone call an hour or two after an email had been sent might get annoying.
Through those frequent calls, I got to know Richard’s deputy, Ed Gorman. Ed had himself worked abroad. And like Richard, he could see elements of himself in me. In the mid-eighties, while he was working at a dull trade magazine, a friend had called and suggested they head to Afghanistan together as freelancers. “But I had no money. I had no contacts in Fleet Street. I’d never written a word in a newspaper,” Gorman wrote in his 2017 memoir Death of a Translator. But he went ahead. By his own admission, he was as ignorant of the subject matter on which he’d later report as I was. But, he would write, “We knew this was going to be the greatest adventure of our lives.”
That’s also what I was hoping for, and at this point I was so consumed by the hustle and adventure that the bigger picture hadn’t really registered. What gave me the right to report on this stuff? I knew nothing, less than someone who’d done a school project on Mexico and had taken a few Spanish classes. I wanted to impact the world, but I could have done that, likely more efficiently, through science, business, or charity. The foreign correspondent’s destination, I’d later realize, is often a playground for the ego.