He gets those calls fairly often. Arias came to PEOPLE in 1985, after deciding he'd had enough of teaching English in Yucaipa, Calif., and wanted to get back to journalism, the profession he had practiced in his 20s. Just a few months after his arrival, he was summoned from PEOPLE'S Star Tracks beat to interview earthquake victims in Mexico. Since then he has followed the news from Haiti to Ethiopia to Brazil, always returning with evocative, human stories. Fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, he was the obvious reporter of choice for this week's story on cattle rancher John Hull, the American expatriate and contra supporter whom Costa Rican officials have accused of drug trafficking. "You can't beat Ron when it comes to parachuting into a situation and coming back with a story," says James Kunen, the editor who first suggested that Arias profile Hull. "He can talk to anybody—left, right or center—because he knows how to listen."
That talent proved indispensable during the week Arias spent at Hull's ranch near the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. "Here was a guy who has been interviewed by everybody," says Arias, a second-generation Mexican-American who has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru and a newspaper reporter in Argentina. "I went horseback riding with him, attended his daughter's wedding. I was looking for his character. Every night I would ask myself, 'Who is he?' "
Coming up with answers wasn't easy under the circumstances. "The border area was full of mercenary types, spies, who knows what else," Arias says. "It was a bizarre, clandestine atmosphere. People would pull you into the bushes and talk in low tones. It was like being part of a James Bond movie." But Hull, an avid pro-military type, "warmed up," Arias says, "when he found out I'd been an Army brat."
Costa Rica, Hull's adopted homeland, has in the past year begun to feel like something of a second home to Arias as well—last summer (PEOPLE, July 11, 1988) he spent five weeks there interviewing a group of fishermen who had been adrift at sea for five months. (His book on the subject, Five Against the Sea, will be published by New American Library in October.) For the time being, however, he is based at his real home in Stamford, Conn., where he lives with his wife, Joan. (Their son, Michael, 21, has left the nest to work as a special-effects technician in Hollywood.) "It's good to catch your breath now and then," says Arias.
But his backpack is ready to go.
Whenever senior writer Ron Arias leaves the house, he picks up a backpack containing his passport, a change of underwear, his tape recorder and some blank tapes. That way, if a PEOPLE editor should call to ask him to cover a story in some foreign land, he can head straight for the airport. "I love nothing better than to be sent to a remote place at a moment's notice," says Arias, 47. "It gets my adrenaline going."