Intense National Geographic Series, ‘Locked Up Abroad,’ Documents Inept Travelers

muleLast week’s arrest of diaper-wearing cocaine smugglers at JFK proved more laughable than horrifying to those not directly involved. Drug busts are in the media so often, we rarely pay attention to them. They’re certainly not something I care about.

Yet, I’ve recently become obsessed with a National Geographic show called “Locked Up Abroad.” I don’t recall hearing about this harrowing documentary series when it first aired in 2007, but it caught my eye about a month ago, during a late-night Netflix bender. It’s now in its sixth season on the National Geographic Channel.

Each episode profiles one or two subjects, most of whom have been imprisoned in developing nations. While a few episodes detail hostage and other kidnapping situations (Warning: if you’re at all easily disturbed, please don’t watch … nightmares are almost guaranteed), most involve drug smuggling gone awry.

As a die-hard adventure traveler, I find “Locked Up Abroad” absorbing (that’s not an intentional diaper pun) because it’s a real-life dramatization of my worst fears. As a solo female wanderer, I can’t help but worry sometimes about kidnapping or becoming an inadvertent drug mule, no matter how self-aware I try to be. Many of the episodes on “Locked Up Abroad,” however, involve people with the intellect of dead hamsters, and it’s hard to feel much in the way of empathy, given their greed and gullibility.Still, it’s hard to resist a good prison story, especially when it involves South America or Bangladesh, and pasty, bespectacled English blokes or naive teenage girls from small-town Texas. The psychology behind why these people take such enormous risks, and how they manage to survive in inhospitable and downright inhumane conditions is fascinating.

Perhaps I’ve just watched “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Return to Paradise” one too many times, but I’ve often wondered how I’d fare in such a situation, and I hope I never have to find out. But documentaries like “Locked Up Abroad” are more than just sensationalism. They’re a window into our desperate, greedy, grubby little souls, as well as testimony to the will to survive.

For some reason, YouTube and National Geographic Channel video links are disabled or broken, so if you want to check out some footage, click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Svadilfari]

June 4 trial date for American journalists in North Korea

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, both reporters for Current TV, will be tried in a North Korean court on June 4, 2009 for entering the country illegally and planning “hostile acts.” Ling and Lee were picked up along North Korea‘s border with China on March 17, 2009

Anybody want to guess how this one will end?

According to reports by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which is controlled by the state, the two reporters have been allowed contact with a consulate. Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with the reclusive Communist state, they met with a representative from the Swedish embassy. Sweden plays the consular role for visitors (willing or otherwise) from many western countries.

What’s missing is a clear description of the charges. It is unclear what the reporters were doing. This will make it difficult to bring the affair to a conclusion.

Though it’s speculation at this point, the charges could carry prison terms of up to two years.

The Pirate Life on Somalia’s Coast

The BBC recently ran a feature about the pirates who have been terrorizing ships off Somalia’s coastline. These pirates make their money by capturing ships of all sorts, from cruise ships to freighters, and demanding a ransom. Are these guys modern day eye-patch-wearing rum-lovers? According to BBC reporter Robyn Hunter, they are ambitious young men who have found a niche and are exploiting it to ensure that they live the good life in a troubled country where half of the population relies on foreign food aid to survive.

A resident of Puntland, the semi-autonomous coastal area from which the pirates operate, gave Hunter the lowdown on the attraction of the pirate life:

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day…They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns…Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

But the heyday for these cowboys of the Gulf of Aden may be coming to an end. Shipping companies are planning on hiring security contractors to guard ships passing through the area. That will significantly lessen the chance of pirates being able to take a ship and its crew hostage without a fight. It is doubtful though, that the presence of a few armed contractors will lessen the lure of the easy money of the pirate life.