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Commentary | ROSA BROOKS

Globetrotting Ghouls With Digital Cameras

Done Chernobyl? Now vacation at Gitmo or in Iraq.

June 26, 2005|ROSA BROOKS

Two decades ago, a meltdown at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl forced Soviet authorities to permanently evacuate thousands of area residents. Chernobyl is now a ghost town, filled with radioactive relics left by those whose lives were destroyed by the disaster.

But that's no reason not to visit Chernobyl as a tourist. If you have a few hundred bucks (plus the $3,000 or so for the trip to Ukraine) you can now tour a nuclear wasteland, clicking away with your digital camera in time to the gentle clicking of your Geiger counter. According to press reports, about 1,000 tourists did precisely that last year.

Just who are these ghouls? And when they're not globetrotting, what do they do for fun? Hang out in contagious disease wards, snapping souvenir shots of kids with meningitis?

There are a couple of valid reasons to tour Chernobyl, but only a couple. If you're a nuclear scientist, or a historian of the Soviet Union's death agonies, visit Chernobyl by all means, and I'll contribute to the cost of your radiation meter. But if you don't fall into those categories, just save your money and stay home, people! You can find environmental wastelands right here in the U.S.A. Los Angeles alone has 17 hazardous waste sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list, and visiting those is a lot cheaper than flying to Ukraine.

What's that you say? Touring a landfill in Monterey Park doesn't have the glamour of visiting Chernobyl? OK, I think I get it. For a growing segment of the tourist population (people with too much money and no sense), tourism isn't fun if it isn't "extreme." It has to be either bizarre or risky -- preferably both -- and with a pricey exoticism that will leave the proles at Disneyland thoroughly outclassed.

Chernobyl does seem to have it all: At significant inconvenience, you can peek into abandoned bedrooms used by kids who now have thyroid cancer, then experience the excitement of touching some metal and watching your radiation meter go ballistic.

Already done Chernobyl? Sign up now to sleep in the Prague interrogation cell that once held Vaclav Havel. And back in the former USSR, the mayor of a Siberian town hopes to launch gulag tours, where you can chow down on turnip gruel as snarling dogs patrol outside.

That's still just a coming attraction, though. For now, you'll have to be content with other kinds of extreme tourism, like paying through the nose to bungee jump in Zimbabwe. Enjoy the delicious thrill of a 364-foot jump over the spectacular Victoria Falls, while the local population experiences (for free!) the thrilling challenges posed by poverty, AIDS and civil unrest. Cool.

Alternatively, you could fork over $15,000 to go to Kashmir and climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, more dangerous than Everest. Gaze at the snow-capped peaks and ponder the mountain's fabled curse. Occasionally you'll see a pleasing display, rather like fireworks, in the valleys below, as the locals enjoy the evening's gun battle and the bargain-basement thrill of life in a conflict zone.

Wait, I have an idea! If you are attracted to extreme tourism, there are plenty of places where they're giving trouble away for free. Really want to live on the edge? Consider volunteering with a humanitarian aid agency. Unlike extreme tourism, volunteer aid work won't cost a cent.

Sure, the food is crummy (do you like rice? cassava? beans?) but no worse than the freeze-dried stuff they're snarfing down on K2. Like "extreme tourists," aid workers go to exotic destinations: Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Iraq. And they face a level of risk similar to that enjoyed by devotees of many forms of extreme recreation; in 2003, for instance, 78 humanitarian workers were killed by terrorists, insurgents and government thugs.

There's just one crucial difference between extreme tourism and humanitarian relief work. People who do humanitarian relief work actually benefit someone other than themselves.

One more option also comes to mind for the extreme tourism devotee: the military. After a tour of duty at Guantanamo Naval Base, which boasts both beaches and barbed wire, gulag fans will surely conclude that Gitmo puts Siberia in the shade, while adventure junkies will find Iraq a real blast.

And if they get themselves killed, at least their folks will get a nice U.S. flag out of the deal.

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