In 2019, We Were There: 12 Favorite Dispatches From the Earth’s 4 Corners

Being there makes all the difference. When our correspondents are on the ground — or underground or on the ice or at sea — they, and you, can get up close to the story, sometimes uncomfortably so, uncovering essential details that no phone interview could ever capture.

This means traveling to some of the world’s most far-flung and dangerous places, from an Islamic State camp in Syria, to the jungles of Thailand where armed rosewood smugglers roam, to an Afghan arena where the vicious fighting dogs pose the least of the dangers.

Living there matters, too. When our correspondents spend years as residents of the regions they cover, they discover cultural truths about a country that only slowly reveal themselves. The Germans love to go fast and, as we’ll see, to get naked. The Senegalese will never miss a workout. The Lebanese may not like each other, but they love basketball. In China, a parade can mean an eviction.

Spend enough time in a place and even humble objects and everyday animals can reveal outsize insights about a country’s mood and manners. Clay pots in Myanmar. Bagels in Montreal. A quirky ’60s convertible in Britain. A rooster in France. Snakes in Canada.

While covering India’s climatic extremes, a medical emergency intervened, and the story became not only about monsoons, but also about Indian society, the human mind and cancer.

“I was taken for dead by a mortuary crew, who toe-tagged me with the following ID: ‘Unknown Caucasian male, age 47 and a half,’” our reporter wrote. “Nothing could have cheered me up more. It was only days until my 70th birthday.”

—By Rod Nordland

As South Korea’s birthrate plummets, rural schools are emptying. To fill its classrooms, one school opened its doors to women who have for yearned for decades to learn to read and write.

“Writing letters to my children, that’s what I dreamed of the most,” said one of the students, who range in age from 56 to 80.

—By Choe Sang-Hun; photographs and video by Chang W. Lee

“Paraguay is the land of impunity,” said a notorious drug kingpin we interviewed in his prison cell.

Hours later, it was hard not to interpret those words as a blood bath foretold.

—By Ernesto Londoño

For years, a subculture of teenage hobbyhorse enthusiasts flourished under the radar. Now the craze is a national export, and a celebration of girlhood.

Asked which types of girls are drawn to hobbyhorses, Maisa Wallius, a Finnish girl training for a hobbyhorse competition, thinks for a while. “Some are sports girls,” she answered. “Some are really lonely girls. And some can be the coolest girl at school.”

—By Ellen Barry; photographs and video by Dmitry Kostyukov

The famous pasta-making women of Bari, Italy, are worried a crackdown on contraband orecchiette could threaten their way of life.

“They should help us pass this tradition down, not exterminate it,” said Nunzia Caputo as she nimbly molded some dough. “You should teach it at school. You have kids now who can speak two or three languages but can’t do this. If you give them a little ball of dough, their eyes light up.”

—By Jason Horowitz; photographs and video by Gianni Cipriano

After decades of a dictator’s rule, a wave of exuberance has rippled across Sudan’s capital as the young revel in newfound freedoms — to speak, party and find love.

“The changes were shocking at first,” said Zuhayra Mohamed, who defied her parents to join the protests. “It’s as if the regime had its arms around our necks for so long, and now there’s something so beautiful.”

—By Declan Walsh; photographs by Bryan Denton

Thirty years ago, 200 people lived in the Moldovan village of Dobrusa. But most have since left or died. After a twin killing in February, there’s only one survivor.

“When I work, I speak with the trees,” said Grisa Muntean. “With the birds, with the animals, with my tools. There is no one else to talk to.”

—By Patrick Kingsley; photographs by Laetitia Vancon

Australia’s largest city has a rare superpower: It turns urbanites into bird people, and birds into urbanites. Interacting with the huge avian population is a daily adventure and (mostly) a delight.

“There are ménages à trois,” observed a Sydney bird watcher, nodding toward some corellas. “We’re interested in their behavior.”

—By Damien Cave; photographs by David Maurice Smith

Germany’s nudist movement has survived Hitler, communism and Instagram. It has everything to do with wanting to be free, say adherents, and zero to do with sex.

“Once you’ve played Ping-Pong with someone naked, you can’t call them ‘colonel’ anymore,” said a German police officer, who once bumped into a high-ranking boss at a nudist camp.

—By Katrin Bennhold; photographs by Lena Mucha

Hong Kong’s intellectual and emotional links with the mainland, once strong, are withering, and this distance and disinterest could be the biggest threat facing Beijing.

“Young Hong Kongers want nothing to do with China,” said Liu Kin-ming, a veteran Hong Kong journalist. “They have no more interest in subverting China than they do in subverting Zimbabwe.”

—By Andrew Higgins; photographs by Lam Yik Fei

The abacus is still taught in Japanese schools, although not as intensively as it once was. But the centuries-old tool remains popular, and national tournaments attract elite competitors.

“As soon as I hear the unit like trillion or billion, I start to move my fingers,” says one of the teenage champions.

—By Motoko Rich; photographs by Chang W. Lee

A European court stopped logging in the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, one of Europe’s last remaining primeval wilderness areas, largely untouched since the last glaciers receded more than 10,000 years ago. But many still fear for its future.

“This place is so different than any forest I had ever seen,” said Prof. Rafal Kowalczyk of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

—By Marc Santora; photographs by Andrea Mantovani

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