Adventurer Publishes a Field Guide for the Fearless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High above the basin, where bloody mayhem reigns, the Delta captain's voice comes over the PA:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the city of Los Angeles is in a state of civil unrest. We will be landing. However, we must urge you in no uncertain terms to use extreme caution in reaching your final destination. Lawlessness and violence exist in many areas of the metropolitan region."

A dental hygienist turns to the record store manager beside her. "So? What else is new?"

Welcome to L.A. as portrayed in "The World's Most Dangerous Places," an unorthodox travel guide that is selling like arms in Iraq and capturing media limelight as well as the ire of governments that want their country's monuments, not their war zones, written about.

With adventure tourism one of the industry's strongest sectors, this opinionated primer has become guidebook publisher Fielding Worldwide's fastest seller.

The book is the creation of Robert Young Pelton, 41, Canadian-born adventurer (now a U.S. citizen and Southern California resident) who purchased the Fielding Travel Guides series in 1993 and has refocused its 50 titles toward younger, independent travelers in search of unusual adventures.

The company just issued the paperback's updated second edition--after only one year--covering such hot spots as Cambodia, where "kidnapped Americans are only worth 10 grand"; Sierra Leone, home to "whacked-out rebels who eat people and then kill them"; and Bosnia-Herzegovina, "where a lot of people will never be found."

Both editions have sold well at Travelers Bookcase in Los Angeles, said owner Priscilla Ulene.

"We actually bought a few extra, thinking people would want them as Christmas gifts," Ulene said. "The interest in adventure travel is really up, and this is kind of like one step further."

Adrian Kalvinskas, owner of Pasadena's Distant Lands store, said the book exemplifies Pelton's efforts to rejuvenate the company.

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The world of travel-book publishing is also a dangerous place, and some current and former Fielding writers are eager to take potshots at Pelton, the job he's done and what they call his big ego. Declining to speak on the record, they said his books are full of errors; the writing and layout, poor; and the line's overall quality has dropped.

Pelton "has a list of ex-guidebook writers a mile long, and they all hate him with a passion," one former contributor wrote in a letter to The Times.

Pelton refutes most of the criticism, though he admits to factual errors in some guides--such as transplanting the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts from Los Angeles County to Orange County. But he said most mistakes result because prices, places and circumstances change after books are published. (All contain disclaimers.)

He also acknowledged that about half of the writers working for Fielding before he took over from publisher William Morrow & Co. have been fired or have quit.

But that, he said nondefensively, is because he pays less. "And on top of that, we demand that our books be rewritten from the ground up almost every year. We are pretty tough people to work for. The bottom line is, we have people who risk their lives to write Fielding guides, and I expect all my writers to do the same."

Disgruntled contributors, he said, "think I'm a dilettante, a rich guy who dabbles. But Fielding is my life."

Pelton's strategy is working, says bookstore owner Kalvinskas.

"I couldn't sell an old Fielding," he said. But Pelton "took a dinosaur and injected it with lots of energy and money. The whole line has picked up quite a bit."

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Armchair adventurers may pick up the 1,000-page tome, but Pelton says he primarily cowrote it for "adrenaline junkies" like himself. Whether confronting danger for thrills or pay, they need tips to elude petty theft, death squads, yellow fever and the like.

"Every time I'd go to one of these places, I'd have to find out how you get in, what's going on, how to get around," says Pelton, who says he has managed to escape death many times over in 25 years of world travel. "Guidebooks to very remote places would be 8, 10 years old. They're not updated very often because they don't sell that many."

"Dangerous Places," to be updated annually, explains the ins and outs of geopolitical conflicts and introduces the players involved. It contains such basics as visa fees in Burundi, Hezbollah's Lebanon address and translated Khmer phrases aimed at avoiding robbery by a Khmer Rouge: "My watch is very expensive; that's why it makes me very happy to present it to you as a gift."

It's full of first-person, slice-of-life accounts, too. Many are written by Pelton's coauthors Wink Dulles and Coskun Aral, a Turkish international war correspondent. Aral describes Liberia, where teens are among the combatants in factious violence:

"They dance, sing songs, yell insults and wiggle their private parts at the opposing side to incite a battle. One kid fires his rifle in time to the music playing on his Walkman."

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Pelton pretty much fits the image conveyed by his photo on the book's cover. Six-feet-four, he sports a bushy mustache and wore scruffy cowboy boots to a recent interview at his weekend ranch in north San Diego.

Still, he isn't happy about the macho mystique he says has become attached to the book. Though he knows the bush-jacket image helps sales, he sees himself less as an adventurer than a "seeker of knowledge."

He said he has tried to convey the truth, as he sees it, and to encourage travelers to look beneath the surface.

"I was once at a cocktail party with the president of Burundi," he said, "and these guys are so bored and so desperate to be part of the hoi polloi, the crowd--I mean they'd come even to our party--that I realized, well, isn't that what really drives African dictators? They don't want to be sitting at home watching TV; they need to get out and be the king. So [I'm trying] to give people insight into why people are doing what they're doing."

A primitive-art collector and father of twin girls, Pelton developed a taste for "life-threatening danger" at a rigorous survival school for boys in Manitoba. He took his first trip around the world at 19 and never stopped globe-trotting. Along the way, he built a successful advertising and marketing business, then bought Fielding, founded by Temple Hornaday Fielding.

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These days, his "self-centered" approach to travel has changed. Now, he's driven to "go after countries that deliberately invite tourists" without adequate warnings of potential dangers, he said, and is gratified by the Cambodian government's protest that the book exaggerated perils to its foreign tourists. He hopes such governments become more responsible.

Others grumbling about the book include that by some media, which have criticized its elitist tone, Pelton said. He rejects the idea that it promotes the world's most vulnerable sites as playpens for the curious, however.

"I'm trying to write a book you can use as a tool," he said. "Lots of people go to Israel on vacation, for instance, but have no idea it's a war zone. I say to them, 'Why don't you call Hezbollah?'

"They say 'Hezbollah?! Oh, no, those are crazy, violent people.' I say, 'No, the address is in there in the book; why don't you write them? Why don't you talk to them, tell them what you think of them?' The book opens doors people don't want to open sometimes."

Pelton does admit--despite his plea that readers reject media cliches--that his book "generates cliches by the ton." Still, he says that devoting his L.A. coverage exclusively to the 1994 riots, for instance, is representative of the danger that a tourist might encounter.

"Because we are that far from disaster" at any moment, he said.

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