The art of survival and other stories

Two new books offer tips and tales from the wild wide world.

Published July 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week, prompted by the new travelers' tales anthology "Danger! True Stories of Trouble and Survival," I reflected in this column on the eternal allure of danger to a certain kind of traveler.

Following up on this theme, I want to focus this week on two recently published books that in different ways embrace and extend the notion of danger's irreplaceable role in our travels.

The first is a compilation of short pieces by Doug Lansky, "Up the Amazon Without a Paddle: 60 Offbeat Adventures Around the World," published by Meadowbrook Press.

Lansky is a young adventurer who writes a column that is syndicated in a number of Sunday newspaper travel sections. Some of my best travel editor friends use his column and speak highly of him and his work. So when his book arrived on my desk, I was predisposed to like it.

Perhaps this was a problem, for I did enjoy the book, but not as much as I had expected -- or hoped -- to.

"Up the Amazon" roves the world, beginning with Africa and moving through Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, South America and the Middle East before coming to an end in the United States. Each of these sections offers roughly seven to 10 newspaper column-length pieces, with the exception of Europe, which has 15.

Each piece depicts one of Lansky's worldly adventures. The Africa section, for example, offers canoeing down the Zambezi River, ostrich-riding in South Africa, fishing for bronze whale sharks in Namibia, kloofing in Cape Town, touring an impoverished South African township, hustling carpets in Marrakesh and sailing down the Nile in a felucca. In fact, the table of contents is one of the most entertaining sections of the book.

It's good fun to explore the world vicariously through Lansky. He goes bungee-jumping in New Zealand and sheepherding in Australia, hunts moose in Sweden and plays ice golf in Finland, attends tango school in Argentina, hangs out with the military in the Middle East and wrestles alligators in Florida -- so that you don't have to.

At his best, Lansky's pieces evince a devil-may-care spirit and self-deprecating humor that can be highly entertaining and occasionally enlightening. But I have to say that many of the pieces strike me as shallow and sophomoric. I finished this book feeling still hungry, wanting to know a little less about his zany misadventures and a little more about the cultures and places through which he was stumbling.

Dave Barry mines a similar vein in his travel columns and books, but I usually feel that there is more substance underlying his anecdotes and observations. I learn something about the country and the culture from his work -- and I laugh out loud more often.

But Barry is a venerable master, and this is Lansky's first book. I look forward to his next one.

The second book is one I was prepared to dislike: Robert Young Pelton's "Come Back Alive," published by Doubleday, which is pithily subtitled "The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disasters, Kidnappings, Animal Attacks, and Other Nasty Perils of Modern Travel." The sheer machismo of this subtitle -- the I'm-tougher-than you'll-ever-be attitude implicit in it -- really put me off.

Pelton is the author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," another title that struck me as ludicrously macho when the book was published. These words seemed to bluster and blunder blindly into that testosterone-crazed territory where Outside and Men's Journal, at their worst, occasionally stray, and where Soldier of Fortune and its ilk routinely bivouac.

Without ever reading it, I relegated the book -- and the author -- to my private literary dustbin.

Then I had the opportunity to throw back a few whiskeys with Pelton at a literary/travel event in Los Angeles, and he didn't have a Bowie knife on his belt and he wasn't wearing ass-kicker crocodile boots and he didn't even dominate the night with tales of his guerrilla-running, bomb-dodging, killer bee-kung fuing travails. He just seemed like a fairly normal guy with a penchant for dangerous travel.

So my internal macho-meter dropped just enough to allow me to open his new book -- and lo and behold, it was full of useful, level-headed, no-nonsense advice, told in an agreeable conversational tone, with nice notes of sardonic humor scattered here and there and very little in the way of self-aggrandizing accounts.

"Come Back Alive" covers the gamut of life dangers, beginning unexpectedly but appropriately enough with the home and the highway. Pelton starts out with the preconception-tweaking assertion that the home is the most dangerous place you'll ever be -- because you spend so much time there -- and goes on to give tips about avoiding death from poisons, falls and fires.

Then he moves on to driving. Did you know that just under half of all accidental deaths in this country -- and fully 80 percent of the deaths of Americans between the ages of 16 and 18 -- are caused by motor vehicle accidents? Pelton tells how to maximize your chances of avoiding accidents and then what to do if you are involved in an accident. Then he moves into more exotic vehicular challenges such as soft sand, bogs and floods.

After this Pelton presses into areas where he seems more comfortable: crime, disasters and self-defense. And then the magical mastery tour really kicks off, with stops at, among other subjects, kidnapping, weapons, pestilence, hypothermia and heat, jungles and deserts, maps and compasses and why smart humans get lost and dumb animals don't.

The chapter on flying exemplifies the value of this book. Pelton begins with the reassuring assertion that flying is "the most regulated, highest-tech, best-inspected and safest form of travel in the world."

"There are twelve thousand airliners in the sky making over 15 million flights and carrying 1.3 billion passengers annually," he writes. "With all that activity, worldwide there are only about fifty to seventy accidents that destroy commercial aircraft (including jets, small turboprops, and cargo planes) every year. Not too shoddy compared to the carnage on the highways below."

After this little statistical security blanket, he goes on to offer advice about how to maximize your safety on a plane. "Ask for the first seat in from the aisle in the second-from-last row," he says, reasoning that "this gives you a clear shot for the rear exits, puts you near where the crew hangs out, close to food and drink, gives you a full row in light flights to stretch out and sleep, and lets you see the entire length of the plane."

Then he describes graphically what it's like to crash: "There are really two crashes ... The first bang is the plane hitting the ground at flying speed, followed by a period of what seems like weightlessness. Usually enough to gently launch projectiles in the air above your head and dislodge overhead luggage. The second crash is the doozy. That's where structural damage usually occurs and all hell breaks loose. It might be a solid object that stops you, or your plane may decide to do flaming cartwheels through a corn field. It's all in somebody else's hands now. When a plane crashes, all that snazzy carry-on luggage takes on the character of a missile. Food carts slice off passengers' arms, and even people flying through the air kill people."

If your plane does crash, Pelton says, don't try to be polite. Do whatever you have to do to get out of the plane. You'll be a lot more help to others alive than dead. "In most cases," he writes, "people do a lot of screaming and huddling down in their seats. That's okay, just let them. People freak out on airplanes because they are not used to fighting for their lives when seconds earlier they were having a second Bloody Mary and watching their favorite movie. Don't be shy about crawling over people."

He also wisely recommends heading for the back exit, since most people surge toward the front of the plane to get out -- and that's where most passengers are seated to begin with.

Finally, he adds: "Don't wear synthetics, since they burn or melt. Wool and leather can save your life."

Pelton finishes the chapter by giving the national/regional scorecard for air accidents: The most dangerous place to fly is "anywhere in Africa." The safest is the United States. In the middle are Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe. Russia is 10 times more dangerous than the U.S., he says, and the risk in China is 20 times higher. As for airlines, Pelton writes, the most dangerous ones of all are local carriers in China, North Korea, Colombia and central Africa -- "and pretty much any airline that has a flying goat for a logo." But then he adds: "Flying in the third world, though, is a lot less terrifying than taking a local bus. If you are given a choice of taking a clapped-out airliner over a mountain pass or a clapped-out bus, take the plane."

Most of the other chapters offer similarly hard-won, realistic words of advice.

How practical is it all? Well, hopefully, most of us will never need to know how to survive a plane crash or a kidnapping or an extended stay in a desert -- but it doesn't hurt to know about them. And if I ever were faced with such a predicament, I would certainly be happy to have some hard-bitten tips tucked away in a dusty corner of my brain.

Perhaps the ultimate message of both "Up the Amazon Without a Paddle" and "Come Back Alive" is this: The world is fraught with danger, but that doesn't mean you should cower in bed with the covers over your head. Au contraire, the best response is to embrace the wide wild world, with all its dangers and delights -- just be sure to have your eyes open, your wits about you and your zest for adventure honed.

To which I would add: And be sure your sense of humor is always near, and your heart is at least as big as your fear.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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