There it sits on the "Travel" shelf in your local bookstore, The World's Most Dangerous Places, a hefty, 1,000-page volume. It looks like a travel guide, but with that title is it some kind of joke?
Nope, not a joke at all, even if its emblem is a laughing skull. Although certainly an offbeat guide, it actually is quite serious and surprisingly informative and useful. More than 50,000 copies of the first edition, which appeared quietly a year ago, have been sold. The second edition ($19.95), updated and including much new material, has just been published.
The guide's aim is to provide travelers with an accurate and comprehensive look at the world's worst trouble spots. You can use it to stay out of these places - or if you must visit them, it could help you avoid hassles or even save your life. One fascinating section provides details on the tricky art of bribing your way out of minor traffic infractions, fake arrests or other tight spots. The book should be of special interest to business travelers, embassy workers, archaeologists and foreign correspondents, whose jobs take them to the unlikeliest places, and to adventurers, who pop in simply for the thrill of it.
Brash, opinionated and darkly witty, the guide cites these particular worst-bet travel stops:
Dangerous Places is the creation of Robert Young Pelton, a 41-year-old, Canadian-born adventurer (now a U.S. citizen) who a few years back purchased the Fielding Travel Guides series, which had become moribund. Since then, as publisher and chief executive officer, he has revitalized the firm, aiming Fielding's 50 titles at younger, independent travelers in search of unusual adventures. He is the principal author of Dangerous Places, sharing credit with two other thrill seekers - photojournalist Coskun Aral, whose beat is the front lines of the latest war, and Wink Dulles, a Mel Gibson look-alike, tour guide and writer who travels Indochina on a motorcycle.
"When I got into this business I tried to hire other writers to do the book," Mr. Pelton says, but "they told me I was crazy." So he decided to report and write it mostly on his own, plunging with his two colleagues and other contributors into the world's "nasty places."
Along the way, Mr. Pelton and his crew have been "shot at, abused, scammed, beaten, blown up, sick, bored and bashed," he says. "But we don't reciprocate. . . . We do not carry any firearms, and we do not harm, injure or kill people in our travels." In Eastern Turkey recently, a Kurdish warlord suspected Mr. Pelton of being a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency, "and he wanted to shoot me." Mr. Pelton talked his way out of the threat by showing the warlord a copy of a Fielding guide "with my picture in it."
Sadly, the world seems to be growing less safe, although Mr. Pelton prefers to say simply that it is "getting different." The concept of war has changed, and rather than two conflicting forces, today's wars involve numerous competing factions, including criminal factions. The world is "much, much more complex," he says. At the same time, faction leaders realize "that if you kidnap a tourist, you get a lot of ink. You grab one yuppie, and you read about it for six months. We have become pawns."
And yet much of the world remains safe, friendly and honest. "Have you ever gone to the house of a staff member of a luxury hotel?" Mr. Pelton asks. "A maid in the Caribbean lives next to poverty. It's amazing that they don't steal things."
His guide divides the world's dangerous places into three broad categories: "Dangerous Places" - 32 countries, such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, India (Kashmir), Israel and Colombia, where wars or other possibly deadly conflicts are being waged; "Criminal Places" - seven countries, including the United States, Haiti and Russia, where crime is a significant problem; and "Forbidden Places" - eight countries (Iran, Iraq and Libya among them) where it is illegal or politically incorrect for Americans to visit. Another 30 destinations, including Hong Kong, Panama and Macedonia, are described as potential trouble spots in the months ahead.
Despite the dangers, Americans continue to travel to most of these destinations, both on business and on vacation. The heart of the book is its advice on how to avoid getting hassled, robbed, jailed, injured or killed along the way. Much of the information is not readily found elsewhere unless you have access to the U.S. government's intelligence files. The State Department's Consular Information Sheets, another source of information about dangerous places, aren't nearly as thorough.
In the chapter on Mexico, where crime against tourists is a problem, the guide names specific roads where highway banditry is a threat, and it notes that "tourists and foreign residents account for 70 percent of all criminal reports in downtown Mexico City." Terrorist activities in Eastern Turkey make travel to that part of the country hazardous; in Istanbul in the west, you might be slipped a drug if you frequent bars and nightclubs alone. Rio de Janeiro's beaches are the haunt of thieves, so leave valuables in your room. Bombay's train stations have been the target of bombs.
As Americans, we carry extra baggage when we venture into the Third World, Mr. Pelton maintains - "about 200 years of enslavement, imperialism, covert action, warfare, occupation and political interference." Also, much of the world resents American affluence. To avoid fostering more anger, he suggests dressing conservatively, learning at least a few words of the local language, being understanding and "saying hello to everyone you meet on the street."
Does his book paint too gloomy a picture of international travel? It's a question Mr. Pelton has asked himself, and he has concluded, as he writes, that "despite the concerted efforts of all these nations and groups to wreck your two weeks' vacation, most of the world's travelers will have little more to complain about than cold French fries and lumpy mattresses."
And which are the world's least dangerous places? The list is short and not at all surprising: Canada, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Mongolia - a "flat dull place with no roads and less people" - New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, the Vatican, Switzerland, Australia, Iceland and Antarctica. Safe, yes, but Mr. Pelton lists them under the title "The World's Most Boring Places." It is an adventurer's point of view.