Women Who Travel Podcast Lyse Doucet Likes to Think of the BBC as Her Passport
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Lyse Doucet Likes to Think of the BBC as Her Passport

Doucet joins host Lale Arikoglu to chat about working in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Brazil, and more.

There's traveling for work, and then there's traveling for this type of work. Lyse Doucet's position as the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent has taken her everywhere from Afghanistan and Ukraine to Brazil—she often finds herself leaving for an assignment on a moment’s notice to cover natural disasters, turbulent war zones, and all other sorts of breaking news. If you follow the BBC World Service or BBC News, then her voice is likely familiar to you thanks to her decades of work spent bringing the stories of people and places around the globe into our living rooms. It’s not often that she talks about her own life and work—today, she joins host Lale Arikoglu to do just that.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is a brand-new episode from Women Who Travel. I'm speaking to Lyse Doucet, the BBC's chief international correspondent, whose career has taken her to places like Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Brazil, often leaving for an assignment at a moment's notice to cover natural disasters and the turbulence of war.

If you follow the BBC World Service or BBC News, then her voice is likely familiar to you, thanks to her decades of work spent bringing the stories of people and places around the globe into our living rooms, but it's not often that she talks about her own life and work.

Lyse Doucet: Hello, this is Lyse Doucet. Thank you very much for having me on your travel podcast.

LA: Well, we are going to dive into a lot of travel stories. I am very familiar with your voice, and so it feels a little surreal to be actually chatting with you. I'm such an admirer of your career and fascinated by the stories you tell and the places that your job has taken you.

LD: It's interesting that, when you said, "With your job, you have traveled all around the world," and I think that I would say that that is the first issue about travel. To be a real traveler, it can't just be a job. It has to be about something essential within you that wants to go, wants to leave almost everything behind to go to new places, to leave your preconceptions, your ideas of stories, your idea of what lies ahead. I think of the BBC as my passport, which has allowed me to go to so many places and to have the privilege of telling the news, the stories, to share my experiences of so many different cultures and countries, which can seem so far away in every which way, but actually are, in so many ways, so much closer to us.

LA: I want to begin with the fact that you started your life in Canada and you have a Canadian background, and I'm interested to know how you got from Canada to now.
LD: Well, let me try to tell a very long story [laughs] in a very short way. How do all stories begin? Once upon a time, not so long ago, in fact, very long time ago, I was born on the eastern shores of Canada, on the Atlantic, the rocky Atlantic shores, in a very small town, a very small town, very simple lives where people's lives were governed by a sense of what was right and wrong, about belief in God, in the church, had some kind of faith. And I, I left this very small town and went to the center of Canada to go to Queen's University for my bachelor's degree, and which, to this day, I say was the biggest culture shock of all for me, to go from a very small town to a part of Canada where I was exposed to people from much more elite backgrounds than myself.

I went to do my master's degree in Toronto, the University of Toronto, and it was there that I joined a volunteer organization called Canadian Crossroads International, which offered three-month volunteer assignments for young Canadians. It was meant to be kind of an exchange program. And one thing led to another, and I got sent to Ivory Coast. They figured I came from a part of Canada which is bilingual so that I spoke some French, which I did, but I was not fluent at the time.

And, to this day, that I say I'm really glad I started in a village. I started in the heat and the dust, living in a school, living in the community, living according to the rhythms of that community, really getting to know ... for me, it was a predominantly ... It was, uh, a Muslim society, my first time living in a Muslim society, but there was also Christianity. There were Pagan beliefs. There were all many different kinds of beliefs and cultures. And, for me, that was the first time when I really threw myself into something which was different from my own and I got to see it at firsthand. And, to this day, I think that, for journalism too, you have to go right down into the heat and in the dust.

After I finished my three months at the school, I wanted to stay on, and I had made it very clear from the start that I wanted, more than anything else in the world, a young, I guess, 22 years old at the time, I wanted to be a journalist, so I started freelancing. And I'm told that we're not supposed to use this phrase now, especially women, we shouldn't say, "Well, it was right place, right time." We should say, "Well, I made my own luck. I made my own fortune," and I suppose that was it. I took a calculated risk, but I happened to be in the Ivory Coast when the BBC was setting up its first ever West Africa office in Abidjan, in the capital.

And there I was, wrong accent, an accent from Canada, wrong CV, in fact, no CV at all, everything wrong about it. And I joke, when I talk about it, I say the, the clouds opened and God descended and He says, "Give this girl from Canada, this young woman from Canada, a job." And, for better or worse, I was thrown into it. I had to learn on the job, and then here I am, many decades on, I'm still working for the BBC still, and still, I wake up every day and think, "Wow, I'm so lucky."
After the placement finished, I was with two other volunteers, and we traveled to the north of Ivory Coast and we went then to the Sahel, to what was then, at the time, Upper Volta, which later became Burkina Faso and Mali and Senegal. And, after a few weeks of traveling, my two colleagues said to me, "Lyse, everywhere we go, no matter if it's a small village, a town, or a city, without exception, you end up saying, 'Oh, wow, I really like this place. I could live here. I could live here [laughing].'" And, to this day, that is how I approach it.
My last trip before speaking to you was to Brazil. I'd never been to Brazil before, and I talk about it as being the tingle of the first time, the fact that, no matter how far and wide you travel, going to Brazil, eating Brazilian food for the first time and going, "Oh, this food is so good," walking, bare feet, on Copacabana Beach. But walking down the streets, what I consciously do is I walk the streets, I go to the grocery store. It might sound pathetic, but I actually stop by the apartment blocks, I look in the lobby. I think, "Well, what would it be like to live in this one?" and, "Oh, this ... if I lived here, maybe I'd like to live in this apartment block, and I would ... Oh, let's go look at what's in the grocery shops. What would I do? Oh, look at this café. They're sitting outside."
I don't know. I'm sure I'm not the only one, and I hope that some people listening will feel that same sense of self and place that you immediately don't want to be ... in, in Canada, we have this expression, a come from away. I don't want to feel like a come from away.
LA: You know, that walking and that observing ties in so much to also how you start to understand the people of a place and the community, and I think so much of your reporting hinges on the kind of networks of sources that you make in these places on the ground, and I'm interested to know how you build up those communities of sources and people that you turn to and then tell their stories and share their stories with the world.
LD: I sometimes make this joke and then add the caveat that it's not really a joke, that journalism can be an excuse for bad manners because, journalists, we're always in a hurry. We always have a deadline. We always have a source we want to get, a quote we want to hear, a place we want to be. We want to gather information and we get out. But there's also another kind of journalism. You keep going back to the same places. You build on these friendships. It's one of the biggest privileges of being a journalist.

I go back to Afghanistan now, where I first started working in 1988, and I meet people who say, "Oh, Lyse, I was listening to you when I was five years old in Afghanistan," because those were back in the days, of course, where more than 90% of the population listened to the BBC, and they listened to in Dari or Pashto, the main Afghan languages, or they listened in English. There wasn't a global BBC television network then. It was a huge, enormous responsibility to know that not just were you reporting, but you were reporting back to the country and everyone, everyone was listening.

LA: After the break, more about Afghanistan as Lyse recounts a harrowing drive into the north of the country in the depths of winter.
Afghanistan is a place that very few people have been able to visit from the West, the US, UK, Europe, and other countries in the world. How would you describe it to them?

LD: Oh, Afghanistan is an ancient land of the richest of traditions, the kindest of people, a people with a strong sense of self and place, a strong sense of who they are and where their history has brought them to, but it is, sadly, a land which has been cursed by its history, cursed by its neighbors, and it's a land where generation after generation's hopes and dreams have been crushed on this weight of history and the weight of the past.

I remember 1988 and '89, when Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan after 10 years of war, and Afghans would come and whisper to me, "Do you think that, now that the Russians are leaving, will life get better?" And you'd see it in their eyes, you'd feel it in their very presence. And, of course, I said, "Well, yes, let's hope things will get better after 10 years of war." This last generation, who grew up under two decades of international engagement, they became Imagineers, dreaming of futures they never could've have dreamed of before, and now they're living under an increasingly repressive Taliban rule.

And it's a rule I have to say, I meet young Taliban, I did again in January, a lot of them don't agree with these most severe edicts. Afghans like to say about themselves, they're a people who don't lose hope, but they are losing hope, and we're now staring into the darkest of times for Afghans. And our listeners will think, "Well, what a country. It's always been plunged into war and fighting," but Afghan is also a place of haunting music, of beautiful dance, of wicked humor, of kindest people, of delicious food, all those things that you and I seek in our own societies and in our own cultures. Afghans are no different from you or I in the kind of joys and richness that they seek from their own lives.

My last trip to Afghanistan, where the story was about the snow, that people were dying in freezing temperatures. They were so poor they had no defenses against the cold. They couldn't afford the heating. Their houses were so flimsy. They didn't have enough to eat. And, you know, we thought, "Well, how are we going to tell this story?" And one of my Afghan colleagues said, "Well, we go to this camp for displaced people," and I thought, "We've shown that so many times. Even I, when I see that, you know ..." I said, "I've seen it so many times before," and then another colleague said, "Well, we can go over there. Oh, it's about two hours from Kabul, and there's a food distribution." And I thought, "We've shown ... we've gone ..." I always think, "Let us try, as hard as it is, and it is hard, 'cause things keep happening time and again, is how to try to tell the story in a different way."
And then my colleague, one day, said, "Well, Lyse, if we go two hours just this, to the west of Kabul, if we film on this side of the street, there will be snow and, on the other side of the street, there's no snow, so we'll film." And I woke up in the morning and I said to my colleagues, "Look,

the story is snow. We are just going to get in the car and we're going to drive north. We're going to go as far as we can. We're not going to set anything up. We're just going to find the snow, something raw, something as it's happening. We're not meeting any NGOs. We're not setting up anything in advance. Let's just go." And we did.

LA: Describing yourself deciding to just find the cold and drive into the unknown, I imagine is a rule of thumb that you probably apply into just sort of going into the eye of the storm, and, you know, often that can seem or feel quite dangerous. As you have more experience, do you think you become more or less afraid of what you're walking into?

LD: This is not a reckless pursuit.
LA: Yeah.
LD: How I described it is what was in my head, but, of course, what comes in Lyse's head then has to be translated into a risk assessment that we have to reassure our editors in London that it is safe to travel north, that there's not going to be any fighting, in this case, no, there's not going to be an presence of Islamic State, which is one of the biggest security threats in Afghanistan now. We have to have a trusted driver, which is, for me, is the obviously sine qua non of any trip we take anywhere in the world. We worked with a very good local producer, a local journalist, and, again, another absolutely essential part of journalism, for me and many of my colleagues, is working with someone we know, we trust, and ensuring we have good cars that are working. You know, we had a flat tire, we have to have, uh, spare ti- ... you prepare for it. When necessary, we have PPE, it's called, personal protective equipment. So you take risks, but calculated risks.
Everything always seems more dangerous from a distance. You know, even with some of the places that I often work, I'll be in London, England, where I live and I'll think, "Wow, that looks so dangerous." And then I go there and I think, "Oh, actually, yes, there's some risk, but it's not as dangerous as we thought," because the reports we see on TV or what we read about have a way of telegraphing a danger and, while it's real, it's when you're on the ground and you put it into context and how you find safe distances and know how to operate within these environments ...
LA: One thing that I always find really fascinating, as someone who's sitting on my couch reading about a place that is going through some huge turbulence or unrest, is people's ability to find moments of joy, whether it be through food or music or partying and drinking. And I think one scene that really stayed with me is sort of soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was all this footage of people still at nightclubs in Kyiv and baristas working in coffee shops. And I'm interested to know how you seek out those moments of joy, 'cause that is such an important part of telling people's stories as well as the terrible challenges that people are facing in these places.
LD: Would any of us be any different if you're in a place where so much is dying and so much is dark? Wouldn't you try to bring into your life as much life as possible, to live like you've never lived before, to hold on to what matters and hold it dear, whether that's your family and friends, the rituals you cherish? When I was last in Ukraine in February, for those days where ... journalists always like anniversaries and, this one, a terrible moment to mark, the one year since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv ... And I have to say Kyiv is very different. The capital, Kyiv, is a very different situation than Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, as it's known, right on, you know, the Russian border. That has been under months and months of savage bombardment of artillery fire, Russian artillery and airstrikes, where whole cities and towns and villages have been reduced to rubble.
But, in those areas which are still standing, and that is Kyiv, which has emerged battered and bruised, but still so full of life, the cafes were full, the nightclubs were bouncing. We went to one one night where there was an art exhibition, where the bands were playing, the lights were pulsating, the beat was fast. And they're living ... the Ukrainians who are still there, there are millions, of course, had fled, are living almost with a vengeance. This, for them, is this existential war. When President Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he made it clear that he saw this as a war against a country which didn't exist, a fictitious country, a mistake of a country. And, in response to this accusation that Ukraine is but a part of Russia, the Ukrainian revenge has to become even more Ukrainian.

LA: Coming up, Lyse tells me what it was like to be on the ground after the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
You were, quite recently, in Turkey after the earthquakes, and my dad is Turkish, I have half my family in Turkey, some of whom were in Adana and experienced the earthquakes, many of whom are in Istanbul and currently waiting to see if an earthquake's going to happen there. What was it like there? Because I haven't been back since that happened and so really, just on a personal level, I really want to ask what your experience was of reporting from the epicenter in a country that I love and is a part of me.

LD: I'm so sorry to hear that. Uh, our listeners won't see your face, but I can see your face as we are recording. I can almost feel your heart. It's so ... this is not a story for you. It's your family. It's your history. It's your father. It's your grandparents. It's part of who you are. To have seen it close up was absolutely, utterly breathtaking. You know, correspondents like me cover wars where societies are ground down, beaten down, blasted away, day after day, month after month, year after year, but it is still incomprehensible how to fathom when, for tens of thousands, possibly billions of people, life as they knew it is gone in an instant.

It was, what, 90 seconds, the first earthquake, which struck at about 20 past 4:00 a.m. in the morning when people were sleeping in southern Turkey, in northern Syria, and then, within a day, an earthquake, an aftershock so severe, it was described as another earthquake. To see everything flattened, and so painful to go to scenes close to the epicenter, where everything has been flattened and people sat in deck chairs or on the sides of the pavements alongside that rubble, just looking, staring at the rubble. I used ... you know, I described it at the time as this, the front row of their lives, staring into the rubble and believing in their heart of hearts that the people they knew and held dear were inside in that rubble just waiting to be rescued.

And, when they would bring the bodies out, and often in the body bags, it was ... people felt ... the weight of grief would just pull people to the ground like the force of gravity. And you'd just watch this and you'd turn away because you just ... it's such a private, intimate moment of mourning and absolutely earth-shattering in the true sense of the word, but earth-shattering for people as well. And yet, time and again, you're reminded, in these darkest of times, the light that you see ... and what I will also remember from being in Turkey is Jasmine, by the light of flashlights, and her steaming bowls of yogurt and lemon soup, bringing them out to the rescue workers who worked long into the night.

I'll remember the grimy faces of the rescuers who didn't sleep for days, and I said to one of them, "You work so hard and you will never forget this tragic time of your life," and he smiled

and he said, "What I will remember is the people I brought out alive." You know, imams, you know, prayer leaders, came from across Turkey to be with the families as they prayed for the dead. Volunteers came, even people who had lost people in the rubble came, and it was out of darkness, things come, like this humanity. And you would not want to see the darkness of the times, but that, I think, is what keeps you going.

LA: Your job as a journalist, especially when you're kind of, you know, live in the moment, is to analyze and also just describe what you're seeing before you, as you just did so vividly, and sometimes what you're seeing is sort of incomprehensible. Do you compartmentalize?

LD: It's hard to say compartmentalize because it's as if you say, "Well, I am coolheaded enough to remove myself from here," 'cause sometimes the situations are so overwhelming that all of your being has to be in that moment. I do believe it's important not to show emotion because, if you show yourself crying on air, getting angry on air, then you become the story, then people will be distracted and think, "Oh, look, poor Lyse," or poor whoever the correspondent is, and we have to try to always remember that we are the ones who are asking the questions and we are ones who are hearing what's happening to others.

LA: You are spending so much time in all these different places with these intense experiences, and then you have to go home. What is that transition like?

LD: You know, a lot in our conversation today has focused on places where things are falling apart or people living hard lives, but, you know, people still want to get up in the morning with a measure of hope and humanity and a good dose of humor. It's those very human things that get all of us through our lives and are the very things that I think that bring us closer together. I see my job as saying to people, "Hey, look, I know they seem so far away, but, in fact, they are no different from you or I."

LA: Lyse, thank you so much. This has just been such a fascinating conversation. 

LD: I hope I was okay.
LA: Oh, my God, you killed it [laughing]. You were great.
Next week, in anticipation of Mother's Day, we're talking mother and daughter travel with Connie Wang, whose new essay collection reflects on seeing the world with her own mum, Qing, and we hear from a whole range of listeners who have their own stories to share.

Thank you for listening. I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @lalehannah, and follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.
LD: I never know whether anything makes sense anymore [laughs].
LA: No, it really, really does. You were so brilliant, and I really-
LD: I'm, I'm so sorry about your family. You know, I should have told you my hobby is names 'cause, [laughing] in Canada, everyone comes from somewhere else, and, you know, it's become so toxic in Britain. You can't say, "Where are you from?" Of course, it's Turkish, and Lale, just like Lale, you know, um ... anyway, so I'm so sorry about [inaudible 00:26:33].
LA: Yeah. I mean, I was lucky. All my family's fine.

LD: But it, it threw me sideways, yeah. It threw me sideways when you talked about ... I was going to cry when I heard about-
LA: You, you almost made me cry. I was ... [laughing].