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:
"Dangerous Places" includes country chapters that rate the locale's risk to life and limb and quickly make one feel inferior for not having been to Bougainville. Also outlined are dangers ranging from dengue fever to land mines and paramilitary groups. "DP Professional Strength" will be geared toward hotspots Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rest of the country profiles will still be available on the Come Back Alive website, where Pelton also hosts an online forum.
Pelton, who is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London, notes that "before 9-11 you could count on one hand the people who'd been to Afghanistan," but now the war zones are swimming with business people and government officials who far outnumber the journalists. This is his main target audience for DP Pro, and the catalog copy promises "a discussion on the new dangers of working and traveling overseas on business, as well as hard earned tips on safety, training, equipment, resources, and services — everything you need to circumvent violence, greedy custom inspectors, kidnappers, insurgents, and a whole host of hostile elements."
And though Iraq and Afghanistan have become the hotspot destinations du jour, Pelton tells me that other countries still stack up on the danger scale — Chechnya, Liberia ("nobody goes there"), and Haiti, to name just a few. "Anytime you have groups that are targeting Western tourists," you have a recipe for trouble, he says. Pelton notes that overseas travelers can get kidnapping insurance — about $7.50 a day in Iraq — that covers negotiations, bribes, and medical expenses. Talk about peace of mind — "kidnappers won't saw your fingers off if they know they're gonna get their money."
Pelton was on the Afghan-Pakistan border a couple of years back looking for Osama bin Laden. So it's no surprise that his new title coming out August 1, and available for pre-order now on Amazon, is about the war on terror — "Licensed to Kill: Privatizing the War on Terror." The book stems from two years Pelton spent with contractors around the globe.
"The most dangerous thing in the world is ignorance," Pelton has said. So it will be no surprise if the ignorant who read Pelton's book fancy themselves Indiana Jones and head off to Burundi in search of good times (but not before I do). The book has a disclaimer designed for those people who need the "do not try this at home" reminder on commercials where a car flies off a cliff. "The authors and publishers assume no liability nor do they encourage you to do, see, visit or try any of the activities or actions discussed in this book," reads the disclaimer on the Come Back Alive site. So if anyone marches into Algeria's Kasbah and comes out riddled like Swiss cheese, it isn't Pelton's fault.
"They've yet to find a dead person clutching a copy of the book with a surprised look on their face," says Pelton.
By Bridget Johnson
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online