Travel journalist gives talk on extreme adventures

Nov 12, 2020

Ever wonder what it’s like to fish for piranha in the Amazon’s Rio Negro, swim in a thermal-heated sea in Antarctica, or try to crash an airliner? 

Nearly fifty people signed in to Zoom on Thursday night to hear travel journalist Peter Mandel describe these and dozens of his other adventures in a presentation called “Going to Extremes,” hosted by the Friends of the Dartmouth Libraries.

Mandel took attendees from pole to pole as he recounted experiences from his life as a travel journalist for outlets like the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others.

Comments and questions were welcomed throughout as the talk moved from the high arctic and Churchill, Manitoba — where Mandel encountered a polar bear who enjoyed drinking humans’ used shower water — through bamboo forests in Japan, waterfalls and savannahs in Africa, and ultimately to Antarctica.

The presentation also included plenty of humor.

While on a riverboat cruising the Amazon’s Rio Negro, Mandel said the boat’s chef gave everyone some leftover steak to go fishing for piranha. 

“I kid you not, some lady from Massachusetts who hadn’t ever fished before caught 28 piranha,” he said with a laugh. “The chef then fried them up for our dinner...They’re not tasty. Very bony.”

“Anyone ever ride a camel?” he asked at one point, before describing how awkward the animals are to ride. “It isn’t much fun, is it?”

He even went swimming in just trunks in Antarctica, where the sea was warm from geothermal activity. According to Mandel, getting into the water was fine, but once he got out the air froze the thin layer of water on his skin.

For one story — a look behind the scenes on commercial flights — he got to train as a pilot, eventually simulating a flight in which one of his Airbus 318 engines was cut off.

But the plane handled the situation so well, he decided to try to crash it himself.

“It wouldn’t let me crash it!” he exclaimed. “A voice kept coming on saying ‘Ground approaching, pull up.’”

As for what goes on in a real cockpit, Mandel said, on one visit to the front of the plane, the pilots told him what to do if something should happen to them.

“They showed me a coil of rope and a pickax,” he said. “What I was to do was to break out the window and rappel down the plane!”

“Luckily that didn’t happen,” he added with a laugh.

Some of his extraordinary experiences even took place closer to his Providence, RI home — like a story that saw him become a theme park character for a day. 

Dressed as Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants, Mandel brought a thermometer in to see what would happen.

“It was 106 degrees in that frigging suit,” he said. “I got sucker punched by one kid.

One kid kept snapping back my pantaloons.”

Still, he said, “I was never so popular as when I was Patrick the starfish.”

Mandel noted that you don’t have to go to the jungles of South America or an Antarctic ice shelf to experience extremes.

“I think an extreme trip can be an extreme for a whole bunch of reasons,” he said. “Let’s say it’s really hot there, or politically really dangerous, or really hard to get to, or wildlife or geography that’s super challenging or really unusual...Everyone has their own idea of what going to extremes might mean for them.”