Travelin’ Man

Nailing stories from Timbuktu to the Basque Country

Josh Hammer has written for Smithsonian about the dying of the Dead Sea, the disruption of Iraq's Marsh Arabs and the preservation of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. In this issue the former Newsweek correspondent, who was based in Capetown, South Africa, writes about the Basque Country of northern Spain ("Peace at Last?"), where separatists have fought the government for decades.

Our Amy Crawford reached Hammer by telephone in Kabul, Afghanistan, to ask about his travels in the Basque Country.

How can you mix terrorism and tourism in the same story?

Hammer: I tried to weave the two together, because that's what the Basque Country is about: a very compelling mix of the best of Europe with this underlay of terrorism and a very violent past. The fact that you have had ongoing terror in this beautiful, civilized part of the world was fascinating to me.

Why has Basque culture remained so distinct?

Hammer: Parts of Basque Country are very Spanish—San Sebastián, for example—but you get to a place like Ordizia, and the mountains give it a kind of isolation that the rest of Western Europe doesn't have. It's a very small area, but you go from one corner to another in half an hour and you're in a different world.

Was there a most memorable moment?

Hammer: Aitor Aguirre, a former jai alai player, took me to this incredibly seedy stadium filled with people who looked like they'd been sitting in the same tobacco-stained chairs for 60 years. At three o'clock on a weekday afternoon, these guys were wagering hundreds of dollars on jai alai. It was just weird.

(Click here to read more of Hammer's interview.)

Two Smithsonian stories were selected for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006: "Marya Hornbacher won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for "Oscar Peterson. And Craig Canine's article about efforts to improve on the world's most popular fruit, "American Association for the Advancement of Science. Congratulations to all.

Photo contest entries are due by 2 p.m. (Eastern time) January 4, 2007, at And may the best shot win!

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