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Global Disaster

The international elite had gathered in Davos to discuss the world’s problems; my problem was that I had joined them, and I had no idea what they were on abo

Author Chris Wright Illustration Peter Horjus

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A while back, the editor of a current affairs magazine asked if I’d be interested in covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual event in which leading figures in business, politics and pop music gather to solve the world’s problems.

Hmm, let me think. I was being offered the chance to rub elbows with celebrities and world leaders amid the majesty of the Swiss Alps, with some free money at the end of it. Of course, I was making a classic blunder, taking a work trip because it sounded like a holiday, but I was oblivious to all that. Potentially catastrophic economic and environmental issues, here I come!

My second mistake was my choice of footwear, which was geared more toward making a good impression on Bill Clinton than gaining purchase on Davos’ snowy sidewalks.

This resulted in an impromptu, ongoing street performance, a kind of interpretive dance whose inevitable finale was a hard, painful fall. For the most part, “Inappropriate Shoe” was watched by machine gun–toting security guys, but now and then I’d find myself flailing under the gaze of, say, Angelina Jolie or Shimon Peres. These icy pratfalls, though, were nothing compared to my frosty encounter with Sharon Stone.

I sidled up to Stone during a presentation by Bill Gates, who was talking about how much he hates disease. I asked her if I could do a quick interview. She said no. I asked why. She said no. I wheedled. I cajoled. She said no. Then, after a few minutes of awkward, shoulder-to-shoulder silence, Stone nodded at Gates and said, “He’s great, isn’t he?” I shrugged and told her I was too busy chasing around after celebrities to pay much attention. The Basic Instinct star stormed off.

That was petulant of me, but I was desperate. The consequences of my holiday/work confusion were starting to become apparent. Truth is, I knew nothing about economics. And, as if sensing this fact, every luminary I approached on that horrible first day turned me down. Bill Clinton: no. Jacques Chirac: no. Al Gore, John McCain, Tony Blair: no, no, no. Bono waved me away saying he had to go to the bathroom. I asked, only half joking, if we might have a few words in there. No.

Maybe it was the Swiss winter weather, but I got to thinking about the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his final, fatal expedition to Antarctica, in 1912. Like Scott’s, my trip was doomed to failure. And while my death was less literal than his, my experiences in Davos nonetheless point to an underlying lesson we can take from that basic human urge to seek adventure, to head out into the unknown. The lesson is this: don’t. But, like Scott before me, I had embarked on an uncertain journey, one that culminated in me standing before the president of the Czech Republic, feeling very much as if I wanted to throw up on his shoes.

This was at the tail end of day two, and most of the big-shot problem-solvers had already left the building. I spotted a balding, bespectacled man doing a television interview, and although I had no idea who he was, I scuttled over to his PR person and abjectly asked the question. The PR person said yes, Václav Klaus would indeed talk to me. What? By now, I’d fathomed that this was the Czech president, but … what? And then the interview was underway, with the TV crew still recording. I focused on the president’s little mustache, trying to think of something to say. “Um.” The mustache twitched. “Um.” And then, out of the blue, a question came to me: “How do you plan on tackling your country’s crippling inflation problem?”

Lucky for me, the Czech Republic did have a crippling inflation problem, and Václav Klaus had a plan for tackling it. After this, things got a little easier. I managed to land maybe a dozen interviews by the end of the assignment, mostly by adjusting my expectations. The Maldives deputy minister of education, it turned out, was very open to the idea of talking to the press. As I recall, I asked him about his country’s crippling shortage of pencils.

On my last night in Davos, I joined a bunch of other journalists for a night on the town. The excessive drinking made the slipping-and-falling thing easier to bear, as well as the realization that I would never get a job with The Economist. A passing John McCain recognized me and said hello. I was even invited to dine with Paulo Coelho, who spent most of the meal explaining that he’d written other books besides The Alchemist. It was a good night, almost good enough to make me forget that I was going to my editor with a fistful of D-list interviews exploring issues that were either inane or nonexistent.

The next morning, as I sat on the plane that would take me home, I reflected on my time in Davos. The experience had mostly been dreadful, but I was sure I’d never have another like it. And then, as the plane made its ascent, I looked out of the window and saw an Alp punching through the clouds, a mountain in the sky, and I knew then that I would never regret this trip. Better yet, I was going home secure in the knowledge that the Czech Republic was finally tackling its inflation problem, which was said to be nothing short of crippling.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is also available to provide expert commentary on nanotechnology, traditional Guatemalan cooking techniques and the life and times of Catherine of Aragon.

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