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Traveling With Danger

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This column was written by Bridget Johnson.
There's a certain hell that every journalist finds herself trapped in at one time or another, those assignments that remind you there is nowhere to go but up, those local stories that grace the front page today and wind up in the birdcage tomorrow. For many, it's covering ribbon-cutting ceremonies or water-board meetings. For me, it was having to report on a lactation-award ceremony for National Breastfeeding Awareness Month — coupled with the rejection of the resignation request I submitted upon assignment.

When a journalist wrapped in the hell of her own community-fluff assignments picks up a copy of Robert Young Pelton's "The World's Most Dangerous Places," it's like a shot of editorial heroin.

Now in its fifth edition, and with a 10th-anniversary edition — "DP Professional Strength" — from HarperCollins slated to hit shelves next March, this travel guide has consistently blown the boring bus-tour variety of handbooks out of the water. My own chunky, tattered fourth edition (from where I quote) is dog-eared at the pages with convenient tip sheets, such as how to escape an anaconda attack in Colombia (you have to wait until the snake swallows you up to your knees before killing it — a tidbit Pelton gleaned from an NGO handbook) and proper bribes for Russian officials ($2 to avoid a speeding ticket, but $600 to get your phone installed quicker).

Nothing has ever made me want to take a sojourn in Algeria more. What better guide for crazy journalists to pick up while planning their summer vacations?

When I pitched Pelton's book on my blog's Christmas-gift guide, one reader commented that she'd heard Pelton had been kidnapped by Islamofascists. In jumped the man himself with the response: "I was kidnapped by Colombian death squads ... Islamofacists are sooooo Amish." And as he told me last week, that's not even the worst situation he's been in. This guy totally rocks.

Whenever I flip through my dog-eared DP, I begin to feel like an utterly lame journalist. It occurred to me that on my last trip to Mexico, I did more shopping than reporting. So suffice it to say I'm in awe of Pelton's fearless adventures, the guy who's survived PKK attacks and called the Taliban girly men to their faces. The week before I interviewed Pelton, I ran into George Lucas at a party and was marginally impressed. Days later, I got Pelton on the horn and quickly found myself the stammering fan so reviled in Los Angeles.

Pelton, just back from Equatorial Guinea, has packed years of adventuring expertise and stomping through war zones into a thousand pages of killer tales and invaluable tips, including:

  • From "How to Survive Being a Yankee Pig": "Don't go too native until you actually have met the natives. Some cultures can be affronted by you dressing like Gunga Din with Reeboks."
  • From "How to Survive Fundamentalist Places": "Despite other guidebooks' warnings, Muslims understand that Christians have different customs and won't lop your head off the first time you make a faux pas by passing the falafel with your left hand."
  • From "How to Survive Poor Places": "Get the guilt thing out of the way early. You're rich, they're not. They make Nikes and Kmart designer clothes, you wear them. Deal with it or go home and watch infomercials for ab machines."
  • As a journalist, I find Pelton's writing especially refreshing — he cuts through the sort of sensitive EU-speak that plagues global information sources and tells it like it is; and he is also completely cynical and sarcastic.