Robert Young Pelton:
How to be a "Good" Traveler
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Robert Young Pelton's Travel Tips
Robert Young Pelton's World: Traveling Right
It's one thing to be good at something, but quite another to be good. Robert Young Pelton lays out how to be an adventure superhero. Illustration by Asaf Hanuka
On a chilly morning in the northern Philippines, a masked man on a whining dirt bike buzzed by in the predawn darkness and then looped back for a second look. Apparently satisfied that our tiny film crew was not armed, he led us to a remote clearing in the jungle, and one by one the rebels emerged. Suddenly we were surrounded by a collection of ragtag fighters armed with old Garand rifles and wearing tattered high-tops. It was, to my knowledge, the first time they'd revealed themselves to the outside world.
Instantly this "world exclusive" unfolded in my mind: It would bring television coverage, "oohs" and "aahs" from peers, possibly even an award! Then I paused. And then I felt disgusted.
Why is it that adventurers are so easily blinded by the specter of accomplishment? Superlatives like "first," "highest," and "longest" fuel far more expeditions than "most rewarding," "beneficial," "insightful," or, hell, even "helpful." As I sat in the clearing, looking at this sad band of fighters, I realized that there are some essential values and skills that every traveler could stand to learn. Because if you can become both selfless and self-sufficient in your wanderings, you're well on your way to a truly superlative experience.
A few years ago, I set out to rendezvous with a Kayan tribe in the highlands of Borneo. The Kayan, I'd heard, had been pressured out of their traditional longhouses by logging interests, and many of them were migrating to city slums. Most had long since converted to Christianity, and now, as with so many indigenous cultures, the old Kayan ways were fading in the light of development.
I was so horrified at the plight of the Kayan that I stole away with an old medicine man to record his people's traditional songs. The resulting tapes, which I plan to return to the tribe when I go back to Borneo, are a rare time capsule of yet another endangered culture.
Instead of invading remote villages as a camera-toting tourist, make an effort to learn a culture and, more important, keep it going. There are many ways to practice such conscientious travel, but one group really hits the nail on the head: Native Planet runs ten-day trips ($887; www.nativeplanet.org) tailored to protect indigenous ways of life, that include homestays with Mentawai tribes in Indonesia and work-stays with the Bhil people, desert hunters in Rajasthan, India.
Know Thy Enemy
Imagine yourself in sunny Argentina. Now imagine yourself in sunny Argentina during last fall's Americas Summit: protests, riots, tear gas. A typically tranquil country turned hostile.
A true traveler needs to be prepared for any situation, and courses for war correspondents provide quick training. I respect the guys at AKE Limited, whose five-day Surviving Hostile Regions course ($3,500; www.akegroup.com) teaches things like how to gauge the blast radius of an Iraqi car bomb and the attendant first-aid skills. Those planning on slinking around behind enemy lines will prefer the three-day X-treme Solo Operator course ($900; www.scgonline.net) from SCG International Risk. Even if you never use this education, you'll get a good idea of what residents in places such as Falluja or Grozny deal with every single day—a worthy lesson unto itself.
Lend a Hand
One truth of real adventure is that wherever you end up, there will be problems. I'm not talking missed buses or skanky bathrooms. I'm talking AIDS, poverty, famine, drought—Horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse problems. Though it's easy to blaze through some stricken village snapping photos, I say it's everyone's duty to stop and help once in a while.
I'm not advocating that you become Mother Teresa; helping can be as simple as extending a work trip to chip in at a homeless shelter or taking a volunteer vacation. Two aid groups I recommend are African Impact (www.africanimpact.com), which sets up work in heavily suffering regions, and Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org), which builds homes in more than a hundred countries.
Live Off the Land
Hacking your way through the jungle to some remote valley might be fun, but try it without a GPS, food, and a guide. I have learned bush sense from the Yoda-like Aeta of the Philippines, who taught survival to our soldiers bound for Vietnam, and Solomon Islanders who can call sharks with coconut husks.
But most folks can pick up the basics here in the U.S. My favorite outfit is the Aboriginal Living Skills School. Its nine-day Ultimate Abo course ($1,560; www.alssadventures.com) teaches Stone Age fishing methods. And while acquiring such know-how is a lifelong pursuit, schools like this enable you to roam farther, deeper, and with more awareness than you ever thought possible.
Robert Young Pelton is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places.
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