Mark Jenkins: Explorer And Writer Of The Most Dangerous And Difficult

“My areas of specialty is land mines and I’ve covered land mines in Mozambique, Cambodia and Afghanistan in the Congo because I think there are important issues because they’re one of the few weapons of war that remain alive after the war is over, 80 percent of the people who are hurt or killed by landmines are civilians, usually mothers and kids.” – Mark Jenkins

As a foreign correspondent for the past 30 years, Mark Jenkins has explored the most remote, difficult and dangerous places on the planet. He will do whatever it takes to get the story. On assignment in Afghanistan, he was arrested by the Tajik KGB and interrogated for a week. On assignment in Burma, he was arrested by the military junta multiple times. On assignment in eastern Congo, he was captured by the murderous Hutu guerillas. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, says “Mark Jenkins purposefully goes out and taunts the gods. How he gets away with it is probably why he’s had 30 to 40 arrests—and no convictions.”  Learn more about his adventures at www.MarkJenkins.net.

A world-renowned explorer, critically acclaimed author and  international journalist, for the last decade Jenkins has covered the globe for National Geographic Magazine. Among hundreds of stories, he has written about landmines in Cambodia, mountain gorillas in Africa, the loss of koalas in Australia, global warming in Greenland, ethnic cleansing in Burma and climbing Mt. Everest.

Mark Jenkins: My areas of specialty is land mines, and I've, uh, covered land mines in Mozambique, in Cambodia, in Afghanistan, in the Congo because I think they're a important issue, because they're one of the few, uh, uh, weapons of war that remain live after the war is over. So, 80% of the people who are hurt or killed by land mines are civilians. Usually mother, usually kids.

Emy diGrappa: Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guest the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's Your Why. In this episode of What's Your Why? we are talking to Mark Jenkins. Mark is a world-renowned explorer, critically a- acclaimed author, and international journalist. For the last decade, Mark has covered the globe for National Geographic magazine. Among hundreds of stories he has written about land minds in Cambodia, mountain gorillas in Africa, the loss of koalas in Australia, global warming in Greenland, ethnic cleansing in Burma, and climbing Mount Everest. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Jenkins: Thanks, Emy. I'm happy to be here.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely. I'm just amazed at all the things you've done, and, and you're still so young and have a lot of life to live still.

Mark Jenkins: Thank you, I hope so.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Mark Jenkins: (laughs) They say I have nine lives. I hope I do.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, really? Is that what they say about you?

Mark Jenkins: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: Because you've been in such remote places and in dangerous situations?

Mark Jenkins: Yes, often. I mean, that's my area of specialty for National Geographic. I cover conflict or adventure. So, I'm either climbing Everest or dealing with land mines in Afghanistan.

Emy diGrappa: So, why would they send you to cover "conflict" as a journalist? I mean, getting right up next to it and putting your life at risk.

Mark Jenkins: My, my stories are my ideas.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Mark Jenkins: So, why I go is, is more, it has more to do with what I'm interested in learning. I mean, my job really is to bring back a story. Hopefully a compelling, interesting story (laughs) that captures a new perspective. That provides information that we might not otherwise know. So, when I'm covering, I, one of my areas of specialty is land mines, and I've, uh, covered land mines in Mozambique, in Cambodia, in Afghanistan, in the Congo because I think they're a important issue, because they're one of the few war, uh, uh, weapons of war that remain live after the war is over. So, 80% of the people who are hurt or killed by land mines are civilians. Usually mother. Usually kids. Uh, they're just going back into the field after the war has, uh, ended. So, uh, course, I grew up in Wyoming, so I end up taking assignments where there's often some kind of physical difficulty, or either it's too hot or it's too cold, uh, or it's too far to walk. Uh, that's my area of specialty because I grew up in Wyoming and you're used to those sorts of things.

Emy diGrappa: And, how does Wyoming prepare you for being a National Geographic outdoor explorer?

Mark Jenkins: Boy, uh, it, it actually does prepare you. I grew up. I'm from Laramie, and I still live in Laramie. I spent about 10 years working for other, uh, magazines around the world. Time magazine in Africa, so forth. But, you know, I had the Huck Finn childhood of fishing and hunting when I was a boy, and then I kind of shifted to kayaking and rock climbing and mountaineering and alpinism. And all those things you can do right here in Wyoming. It's basically in your back yard. That's ve- very unusual. It's a, it, it's a state that's, that's got everything. I mean, I would love to get an assignment where all I had to do is stay in Wyoming for the year. (laughs) That would be perfect for me, 'cause I'm always being sent to the far corners of the planet. And I lo- I love that, but, eh, I also love doing things in Wyoming. Whether it's in the Grand Teton or the Big Horns or the Wind Rivers or, I mean, I've been to every major mountain range in, in, uh, Wyoming. I've been to every wilderness area. Eh, this is a fantastic state and I feel lucky to still live here. What I, what I fear is that people don't recognize how special Wyoming is. Especially Wyoming nights.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, interesting. Well, I don't know, because I talk to a lot of people all over the state, and they love that they grew up in the outdoors. They love that they maybe grew up on a ranch, or even if they grew up in the city, in Casper, you can still just go outside and, and hike a mountain.

Mark Jenkins: That's right.

Emy diGrappa: You can still go anywhere and, and be outside and-

Mark Jenkins: We have such extraordinary access to the outdoors in this state, and parts, part of it's because we have only half a million people and we have one of the largest states in the contiguous 48. So, it's right in your back yard. All you got to do is want it-

Emy diGrappa: ... Right.

Mark Jenkins: ... and go into it.

Emy diGrappa: Right. And, a lot of people leave Wyoming and they come back because of that.

Mark Jenkins: That's right. That's right. I think Wyoming is, it, it's kind of like, if you grow up here, it's like a, a sliver that goes into your body, the geography itself. And it never leaves you.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: You always circle back. It's a boomerang state.

Emy diGrappa: Right. I heard someone call it a rubber band, actually. (laughs)

Mark Jenkins: (laughs) A rubber band state? I believe that.

Emy diGrappa: So, tell me about your latest project that you're working on.

Mark Jenkins: My latest project, I've been touring the state for the University of Wyoming for World to Wyoming. It's a program I created a decade ago, where I take one of my recent National Geographic stories and turn it into a program. And, it's a, it's a slideshow. Usually there are 140 to 150 slides. And I've covered all sorts of things. I've covered Afghanistan, I've covered climbing Everest, gorillas in the Congo, and this year I'm traveling around talking about Namibia and water scarcity. And, actually, it's an interesting connection to these ancient cave paintings up high on the Bramberg in this remote location in northern Namibia.

Emy diGrappa: And you, you went there and-

Mark Jenkins: Oh yeah.

Emy diGrappa: ... and you took pictures, and you, you bring them back to show this ancient civilization.

Mark Jenkins: Uh, I do. And, eh, this was one of those interesting assignments. I work as a foreign correspondent, and I have for 30 years. Uh, I get to live in Wyoming, but then I, every two to three months I go on assignment some place in the world. And, in this particular case, I was already in southern Africa, doing a, uh, actually, writing a book for the Red Cross about land mines in Mozambique. So, I was already in southern Africa. And I'd heard about these ancient rock paintings in Namibia and I thought, "Well, since I'm here, all I have to do is hop across the continent and I'll go there." Turned out to be the wrong season. I was there in the summer, so it was, i- incredibly hot. But that was also instructive, because I thought originally I was doing a story about ancient rock paintings, cave paintings that were 1,000 to 4,000 years old, painted by the San people, als- also called the Bushmen.

Mark Jenkins: This has happened so often. What your expectations are and what actually happens are all, often very different. So, when I got there, I'm traversing over this mountain range and finding these extraordinary paintings and I start wondering, "Well, why were they up here in the beginning?" And the more research you do, the more you find that they were trying to es- escape the heat and they were looking for water, because up high you've got these kind of rock cisterns, where water will stay for two or three or four years. And, when I was there, the, the Bramberg had not had rain for three years and we still found water up there. So, I can imagine the San people 4,000 years ago had hiked up looking for water, just like we were, it was incredibly hot, looking for shade. And they're laying in a cave and, by golly, they think, "I better draw something. I ought to paint something. I better say what's happened in my life by describing it through paint." And, and so I realized that there was a direct connection between the San paintings and water scarcity.

Emy diGrappa: And, do they paint with plant leaves and things like that? Or, what do they paint with?

Mark Jenkins: Mostly it's minerals. Those paintings are 1,000 to 4,000 years old. The red is created by iron oxide and they use, actually, blood as the binding agent. And then, you've got manganese and you've got ocher. These are natural oc- naturally occurring, usually minerals, actually. And they also use ostrich egg white as the binding agent. So, they're, they're, they're very colorful. They're orange and red and yellow, and extraordinary colors. And, eh, you have all the animals of, of the, of Africa depicted. Giraffes. Elephants. Lions. Leopards. With extraordinary anatomical accuracy. It's beautiful.

Emy diGrappa: Oh my gosh. Do you, are you gonna have those on your website?

Mark Jenkins: Uh, yes, I will. They're not up there yet, but, uh, I'm just finishing this tour, uh, around the state. I gave a show in Jackson last night and I'll give another show down in Laramie next week. But, yeah, I'll have those up on the website.

Emy diGrappa: I think that would be so exciting to see that. What is your website?

Mark Jenkins: Markjenkins.net.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Mark Jenkins: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: Tell me about the journey that you took to actually become a writer for National Geographic. Or, you know, an outdoor adventurer that ... Was the outdoor adventurer come first and then the writer or did the writer come first and then (laughs) ...

Mark Jenkins: Well, certainly the adventuring came first because I wa- have been a, uh, a little climber and riding my bicycle and all that. I wasn't a seven year old who was kind of reading books and dreaming of being a novelist or something. I was one of those boys who was just running around, whacking into things. Camping, fishing. So, the adventure came first. And then I started traveling young. Uh, I hitchhiked across the country when I was 15. My parents allowed that back then. And, uh, went to, went to Europe a number of times. Africa. Russia. And when I got into college, I studied philosophy. Actually, 20th century existentialism is what I studied. So, that's Heidegger and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Uh, Sartre. And I loved it. And, course, when I got out, I realized that it was probably Aristotle that had the last job as a philosopher. Right? So, there were no jobs me. (laughs) You don't really learn how to write very well studying philosophy, but you do learn how to think. Uh, the writing is often very convoluted, as, as philosophers write in more s- obscure ways.

Mark Jenkins: But, I started writing, uh, writing about what I knew, which was the backcountry. I still remember the first story I sold. I sold it to the Casper Star Tribune. It was about map and compass use. And I, I started working for the Casper Star. And, and then it's been this long, very apprenticeship based process. I, I worked for newspapers, then I went to Africa and I worked for newspapers. Then I worked for Time magazine. Then I worked for Backpacker magazine for seven years as the Rocky Mountain writer and I covered the Rockies. Then I worked for Outside magazine. I had a column called The Hard Way for almost a decade and I did a, an overseas assignment almost every month for 10 years. So, I did 100 foreign assignments during that tenure there. Eh, everywhere from the, (laughs) the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Everest to, uh, I'd been to Everest before, but yeah. So, I did, and then National Geographic picked me up 12 years ago and I've been working for them ever since. I've done 25 features for National Geographic. Usually, I'm taking on subjects that are complicated and difficult to get the story. It turns out to be investigative journalism, usually.

Emy diGrappa: Oh wow. And you have done all that and still kept your home and life in Laramie, Wyoming?

Mark Jenkins: I have. And I love living in this state. Eh, my daughters were raised here.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Mark Jenkins: And they're off doing their own things now. Uh, you know, when I come back to Wyoming, it almost feels like I'm coming back to a national park. 'Cause I've had to fly into Jakarta or New Delhi, or all these very polluted, not particularly attractive urban centers now. They were much prettier 20, 30 years ago, before cars. Uh, so, coming back to Wyoming for me is, is a blessing. And it's an opportunity to kind of clear my mind.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: I can write. And oftentimes, I'll, I'll get halfway through a story and kind of lose the thread and wonder what am I doing? So then I'll just go for a hike in the mountains and, near my home. You know, go up to Happy Jack. Or I'll go skate, skiing, or I'll go climbing. And that connection to the outdoors, I think, is what keeps me grounded in my writing.

Emy diGrappa: Well, I don't, I guess I'm still curious about, in, in terms of being an outdoor adventurer, I get that. But then, you've also gone beyond that, to do investigative reporting.

Mark Jenkins: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: And, why did you think that that was important? What, what are the messages that you've learned that you would want people to know that you ha- can pass along?

Mark Jenkins: Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm actually not paid to be an adventurer. This is kind of misunderstanding 'cause I'm always out giving shows about adventures. I'm paid to be a writer. Nobody pays you to go have fun. They pay you for a story. So, you know, the, the climbing of Everest was a hell of a lot easier than writing the story about Everest. The crossing Siberia, I wrote a book about that, on bicycle was a lot easier to do than it is to write about that experience. The translation of what you experience, the ideas you, how should I say, kind of informed, that inform your experience, it's much more difficult to take that from your mind and get it on paper than it is to actually do the trips. So, people are often confused. They think random people just pay me to go climb mountains and kayak rivers, and that's not the case. I'm paid to write. So, I've dedicated myself to writing. And, and you have to take it like you would any other job. You write, you know, six, seven hours a day. That's what I do as a journalist. I go back out in the field, I do lots of research before I go out. I read six, seven dozen books on the subject so that I'm, hit the ground running. I'm prepared to ask intelligent questions about the subject matter.

Mark Jenkins: I spend a month or two, or three sometimes, in the field, interviewing everybody I can find. Taking notes every day. Shooting pictures every day. And then I come back and try to find the story in all that material. Uh, in terms of the investigative work, i- it's so often that what you see on the surface isn't what's actually happening. For instance, when I did the story about mountain gorillas for National Geographic some years ago, it was, uh, we titled it Who Murdered the Mountain Gorillas and it was a story about seven mountain gorillas had been killed and they didn't know who did it. And, I originally thought it was because of the rebels, there was a war in the eastern Congo, but it turned out it was actually, it was all about charcoal. And, charcoal is one of the primary fuels for villagers there. And so, they were killing the gorillas to reduce their habitat so they could cut the trees down, make charcoal, and sell it as a fuel in the villages. So, it wasn't as much about the rebels and, and the insurgents and the Hutu's versus Tutsi's, which is the Rwandan genocide that's moved now into the eastern Congo. It was more about fuel sources for people cooking meals for their families.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: So, in terms of investigations, soon as you start scratching the surface, you find so much underneath. And that's what, hopefully what a good journalist is supposed to do, find the truth.

Emy diGrappa: That's right.

Mark Jenkins: As corny as it sound, I still believe that's my job.

Emy diGrappa: How do you feel about our media right now? The news media?

Mark Jenkins: Oh my God, that's such a big ... I mean, there are 50,000 journalists who are out of work now. When I started in, in this world of working as a foreign correspondent, if you went to Africa, for instance Nairobi or something like that, the Chicago Tribune had a bureau there. The LA Ta- Times had a bureau there. Obviously, the New York Times, Washington Post. They had bureaus all over the world, 'cause people were reading about what's happening in the world. And, let me just say that what's happened is that today we only have one newspaper in the country that's actually covering international news, and that's the New York Times.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's interesting.

Mark Jenkins: All these other large news organizations have been basically just chopped down to little ... Like, the LA Times is essentially now just a, a local newspaper for LA.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark Jenkins: They used to have foreign correspondents all around the world.

Emy diGrappa: Well, even all around the United States.

Mark Jenkins: Right. All these newspapers have collapsed. So, we're in a desperate situation, if you want to know my true feelings, because I feel as if freedom of the press and the press itself is, uh, a cornerstone for democracy.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: And if people aren't reading and they aren't engaged, and they're only get their, getting their information from one tiny slice, they don't know, they don't have the full picture. And this is kind of what's happening. We're having this atomization of interest, where if you're really into one subject, that's all you learn about. And, it used to be that editors kinda made those choices. You would get the New York Times or you would get the Denver Post or you would get the Casper Star and the editors made decisions about, well, we feel that this, this is providing a breadth of knowledge about a certain subject. And now you can completely avoid that, of course. And the other problem that's happened with the media now is the media has been confused with social media. And social media, they aren't the same. There, it, there's a conflation going on. Social media, it's largely opinion. And good media is fact based. It's fact checked. it's created out of evidence, not just your opinion.

Mark Jenkins: So, I think we've conflated what the media and the social media are. Uh, social media, it is a far cry from solid joural- journalism. They're two different things. For instance, when I do a story for National Geographic, every single line has to be footnoted. If I go out and start the story with it was a blue sky day when we first started on the trek, I have to footnote that and s- and give the weather report and show that it was actually a blue sky on the day we started our hike. Every sentence is footnoted. So, good magazines, The New Yorker, the New York Times, uh, that, that's a, uh, a newspaper. The New York Times magazine, um, Smithsonian, Harper's, the Atlantic monthly, the New Yorker, they still fact check everything. But almost all social media is not fact checked. You have no idea where this idea come, came from. In fact, I often find things on, and I just look it up. I just find something, I think, "That doesn't sound right." And you look it up and it's not right, it's just someone's opinion.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark Jenkins: So, we're confused at this point. What's, what's real and what's not real?

Emy diGrappa: And that leads me to a question I have about not just the news, but in terms of what we know about what happens in other countries. Like you say, you, you might have an idea of something-

Mark Jenkins: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... but it's not until you're, you're there that you actually see it with your own eyes-

Mark Jenkins: Right, right.

Emy diGrappa: ... and maybe it's nothing that you thought. And-

Mark Jenkins: That often happens.

Emy diGrappa: ... Right. And so, do we, as Americans, we probably have so many misconceptions about other cultures. Is there one that sticks out in your mind that we just are totally wrong on?

Mark Jenkins: Wrong? Yes. And it's actually a misconception about our own culture. And that is that we always have the answers. That we know better. It's simply not true. For instance, Namibia. This, this show is about not only the art, uh, the rock art, but it's also about water scarcity. And Namibia is the world leader in water recycling. Windhoek, the capital, has been recycling their water from toilet to tap since 1968. 50 years. They've not had a single sickness. They've been dealing wi- with water scarcity since humans first wandered into Namibia. And they've learned a lot. And what I feel Americans too often believe that we know best, and that's just not true.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: It's simply not true. If you go to Holland, they know how to build dikes. We don't know how to build dikes. Hire one of those consultants over there. If you wanna recycle water, send your engineers down to Namibia. They'll learn something. So, I think Americans have a greater misconception of their own superiority. That's where I feel we're, our downfall is.

Emy diGrappa: Right, and that's, that's pretty sad.

Mark Jenkins: Yeah. Pride goeth before the fall.

Emy diGrappa: That's right.

Mark Jenkins: Right? And our political system right now is, i- uh, is probably in shambles because of our attitude towards other countries.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: Which is really sad to me, since I travel so much. I'll tell you a story.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Mark Jenkins: I was in the Sinai last year and I was traveling with Bedouins. And, of course, we tend to think we- that if you're a Bedouin you have no concept of the greater world. And, of course, my, my Bedouin camel driver, we're riding camels, he, we start talking about politics. He has a cell phone. He reads the New York Times in the morning, just like everybody else, and he says, "You know, now that you guys have this president, you're just like an African country. You've got another rich person who's got rich buddies, and that's who's running your country. And that's no different than Uganda or Mali or Egypt."

Emy diGrappa: That's, that's an interesting perspective.

Mark Jenkins: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Wow.

Mark Jenkins: Yeah. They said, the, the-

Emy diGrappa: That's-

Mark Jenkins: ... "Now,"-

Emy diGrappa: ... And you probably went, "Oh." (laughs)

Mark Jenkins: ... "N- just join the, join the rest of us now." I did I was-

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Mark Jenkins: ... kind of dumbstruck.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Mark Jenkins: I was like, "Well, you're probably not too far off." So, I, I think that almost in all cases where I go, even in the most remote places, whether it's Bhutan or Berma or Tibet, they know more about American than we know about them.

Emy diGrappa: Right. Oh, for sure. For sure.

Mark Jenkins: This is always the case.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah.

Mark Jenkins: You know, you think they're gonna be just, only know what's happening in their little vicinity.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: And they've been reading the news like everybody else.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mark Jenkins: It's not very hard.

Emy diGrappa: It's amazing.

Mark Jenkins: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Well, thank you for being with me. I want you to keep being an adventurer and sharing your stories-

Mark Jenkins: Well, thank you, Emy.

Emy diGrappa: ... and inspiring us. Thank you so much.

Mark Jenkins: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, a production of ThinkWY, Wyoming humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to thinkwy.org.