Serendipity Stories is The Open Notebook‘s new series dedicated to the idea that you never know what’s going to hit you on the head. That’s true when it comes to story ideas, as previous Serendipity Stories have highlighted, and it’s true when it comes to finding ways to pull off tricky reporting. Here, Cynthia Graber tells her serendipity story:
Chiang Mai in August was hot and humid. My friend and I wandered around the city, enjoying the luxuriant greenery and the beautiful Buddhist temples — while attempting to keep the sunscreen from melting off our bodies.
I had traveled there on vacation. But, of course, I wanted to get in some reporting, too. I’d flown to visit my friend and her family in Hong Kong, and then she and I flew to northern Thailand for a long weekend together. I had scheduled about five days alone to report before heading back to Hong Kong.
This was back in 2006, and I’d already traveled and reported in Europe, South America, and the Middle East. It was my first trip to Asia. At the time, I was working part-time for a radio show called the World Vision Report (now canceled), and I made a deal with my bosses: if I managed to come back with two solid stories, they’d cover my Hong Kong-Thailand flight. I’d done extensive internet reporting before the trip, and I’d set up two stories that interested me. But I knew that reporting abroad, particularly in developing countries, could be unpredictable. My time was limited. Who knew what would happen once I was on the ground.
One story I hoped to cover was that of role of the region’s monks in dealing with Thailand’s AIDS epidemic. Monks had been crucial in facilitating acceptance of AIDS sufferers in the broader community, and in helping patients access care, food, and work. These monastic men had even taken on the role of sex educators. I had a meeting set up with the head of the project, but I knew this story would only sing if I could head out in the community with a monk on his rounds. I had no idea if I could make that happen.
As my friend and I walked past one particularly famous temple in downtown Chiang Mai, a young man approached us. He was friendly, not too pushy. “Would you like to speak with monks?” he asked, explaining that they like to practice their English with tourists. “No thanks,” we replied, and started to walk away.
Something stopped me. I turned around. “Wait a minute,” I called. “Your English is great. Would you like to work as my translator?” I explained that I was a reporter, I had some meetings coming up, and I might need some help. “Sure,” he said, and scribbled down his cell phone number.
A few hours later, I met the head monk in charge of the AIDS project. We had a great interview, and he told me about a meeting the next morning of monks who work with AIDS patients. I left and called my new contact. Could he come with me the next day? He said yes.
He picked me up in the morning, drove there with me, and sat and translated as a couple of men in a long robes told me stories about encouraging condom use. I was heading out of town for two days, but then I’d be back. Would one of them be willing to take me out into the community? One monk pulled a hot pink cell phone out of the fold of his orange robe, and he and another monk exchanged phone numbers with my new friend and colleague.
While I was away working on another story, my translator spoke to them on the phone. He determined who would take me out, arranged a ride for us, and came along and translated for me. He was friendly, professional, and extraordinarily helpful.
The story turned out to be a deeply moving one, both in the reporting and in the final radio piece. I don’t know what made me turn around to ask for help that day, standing outside the temple in downtown Chiang Mai. I’ve frequently reflected on the serendipity of this event, and I sometimes think that it’s a matter of being open to the world, that luck is another word for recognizing and grabbing opportunities that present themselves. I was certainly lucky that we’d met. I couldn’t have reported the story without him.
Photos courtesy of Cynthia Graber.