"I don't carry weapons, but I carry men who carry weapons."
When Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places was published in 1996, there wasn’t anything like it. (“One of the oddest and most fascinating travel books to appear in a long time,” wrote The New York Times.) Now in its fifth edition, it’s a swashbuckling field guide to the world’s hot spots, laden with refreshingly frank and entertaining anecdotes from Pelton’s extensive travels—“14 wars and 130 countries,” by his count.
Currently, when he’s not vacationing in Kabul, the author, filmmaker, and sometime military contractor is preparing to launch a magazine called Dangerous, which he says will be “kind of like what Soldier of Fortune should have been.” Primarily, however, Pelton divides his time between running DPx Gear, a tactical-knife company, and overseeing Somalia Report, a website he founded to cover piracy and conflict. Pelton is also the only person we know whose business card converts to a shiv. The thin piece of metal has perforated edges that break away to create a small blade—and has yet to be confiscated by airport security.
You’re heading back to Somalia tomorrow. What for?
I’m going to Eyl, a semifamous pirate town on the coast, to do an urban assessment for Somalia Report. We track the locations of hostages and pirate groups 24/7. We want to create GIS maps, then go back three months later, then six months later, and see if there are changes. People always talk about things getting better or worse, but we’re trying to put some metrics behind it.
How many times have you been there?
I’ve been going since 2008 and have made 20-some trips at this point. Last year I sailed aboard a cargo ship from Sharjah [in the United Arab Emirates] to Bosaso [in northern Somalia]. You can hear the pirate attacks on the radio, the captains jabbering away and the Navy people saying, “We’re about a day away, we’ll get there.” I’m trying to get a better idea of what’s really going on, so when I talk about it I’m not blowing it out my ass.
If pirates attacked your ship, who would you want by your side?
You want someone with a hunting rifle, to take out their engines. The poor pirates have about 500 or 600 miles to get back to shore, and most of them can’t swim.
How much has the content of The World’s Most Dangerous Places changed over the years?
People don’t believe me, but there aren’t wars anymore. When I first wrote the book, you had real wars, with tanks shooting at each other. Now there’s more democracy, less dictatorship. The first-edition had 26 countries, and now I’m going to have a hard time covering 12 in the next edition.
What’s fallen off?
Most of Eastern Europe. A lot of Africa. Places like Colombia, where FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is on the tail end of its life. Even Peru, which can be mildly dangerous but is not involved in a war per se. A lot of these countries that used to be holy-shit, ass-puckering places are now sort of like, “Don’t go there,” “Watch out,” “Don’t go out at night.”
So the world is becoming a safer place.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s putting me out of business.