"That’s the thing about travel. When you start, the world doesn’t get smaller, it increases in size." - Samantha Brown
Like almost everyone in the United States, I watch my fair share of television. And, as you might surmise, a good portion of my viewing has to do with travel and all of its myriad sub-subjects. On television you can find nearly every possible permutation of travel program -- from the opulently opulent to the down and dirty dirt. And everything in between.
A truly good travel television show has got to do a handful of things, and the majority do them fairly well without seeming like a shill for the destination , wherever it may be (though Disney has such a glossy style of production that virtually any show that has visited the Disney resorts, cruised on the Disney cruise one or done something Disneyesque, they appear to be cut from the same editing machine). The best shows are those that stand out from the crowd in some way -- they have a style or approach that makes them somewhat superior to a travel documentary about *fill in the blank*.
(This is where most Disney products tip their hat: they all smack of marketing rather than travel. The visuals, the interviews, the carefully trained Disney representatives, are all just a bit too clean and produced. Not that Disney is wrong for presenting this image, but every program I've watched has the same, very identifiable visual style. They each use a bright, over-saturated look, with carefully lined up angles and "visitors" who have clearly emerged from Central Casting. The camera movements are generally beyond most of the lower-budget single camera travel shows, and the lighting is just a bit to pristine, as if the camera crew arrived at the park/ship/resort precisely at the best time of day for an optimal shot. For me it's an easy to spot video, and while I may watch it -- in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm a big Disney fan -- I tend to dismiss it as a marketing film instead of an honest review of a possible destination.)
But this column isn't intended to be about Disney.
It's about the best shows and hosts of programs which truly bite into the Travel Apple and tells us what flavor it is. If it's a particularly succulent fruit, or if there are a few worms under the skin. The best shows are those which add local flavor and texture to their show, and clearly convey what is good, what is bad, and what is downright ugly about a particular locale. Those are the shows I like to watch, and those are the shows most likely to give me the real feel for a place before I've gone.
Some of you may be wondering why I've left Rick Steves off the list below and it's a valid question. Rick Steves is a consummate traveler and reporter, with tons of credentials and hundreds of thousands of miles to his credit, and he's someone who has earned a great deal of respect for authoritative work. The omission is strictly mine. While many people like his style and his company has thousands of travelers every year, I personally regard his programs as most post-cardlike than a real dig into the dirt taste of a region. To me that's the essential key to a good program: do I have a solid feel for a country or region or place -- not just what it looks like, or where the best shopping is -- I want to have a real talk with the locals, at a local level. It doesn't have to be an interview or even a major discussion, but give me an interaction that shows me I'm not watching a marketing film. Rick's program, like the Disney shows, has that feel to it. If I can assign a word, it's more of an advertisement than travelogue, and by that harsh word I mean that the show is a bit too polished towards showing you a destination than taking an honest bite out of it. It's like watching one of the omnipresent Best Of… countdown programs. Each segment is a highlights reel -- or sizzle reel in the current parlance -- instead of a visit. To me both Disney and Rick Steves are highlights shows for tourists instead of reality programs for travelers.
And, in a line from the old Seinfeld show: "Not that there's anything wrong with that". I attach the shows, you watch the shows, and they're popular in general. It's good, and it serves a purpose -- but neither of those categories (and yes, they're major enough to warrant "categories as a description) satisfies me enough to be labeled A Truly Good Travel Show.
(I can hear the "but, but, but…" of some of you when you glance below and see Samantha Brown's name. "Doesn't she do the very same thing?" you'll cry. Well, yes. For the most part she does, but I'll explain her inclusion in a moment. Relax. I'm here. It will be all right.)
It's a matter of individual choice, and that's the beauty of it. You may have a dramatically different list -- but this is my blog, so I get to pick my own list. It's one of the few perks of writing this sort of thing: no money, no prestige, no reward, but it's my world, my toys and my rules. So...
Anthony Bourdain -- (Where I learned "GET LOCAL")
Bourdain is a literate, literary and gritty teller of truths. His first book, KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL proved he has a unique voice and style of communicating that is both sardonic and captivating. There is something about the way he describes a place, the way in which he approaches it, that pulls the viewer along -- not just as an audience member, an observer, but in a way, as Bourdain's friendly and personal confidant sharing in some of the less printable observations as well as those things that make a given itinerary more than merely an antiseptic jaunt from airport to hotel and back.
Bourdain makes each destination live for the viewer, even if it's not always in the most flattering light. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty, jumping bare-ass naked into an Icelandic mud bath or South American river. His vocal style is unique, but if forced to define it I'd need to describe him as the illicit expositional child of Ernest Hemingway with more than a dash of Hunter S Thompson. And after some of the very rough nights of alcohol-infused cultural bonding, Bourdain resembles nothing so much as one of Thompson's spiritual and artistic companion Ralph Steadman's gonzo caricatures. But yeah, utterly brilliant and someone I deeply like.
Alton Brown -- (Who showed we should 'GET AWAY FROM THE MAIN ROADS")
"What?" you ask, "Alton Brown, the cooking guy? What's he got to do with travel?" Good question. Typically we see Alton in a kitchen, be it small and houselike or huge and stadium-sized -- he's the main presenter in such Food Network fare as THE NEXT FOOD NETWORK STAR and the American version of IRON CHEF. When he's not presenting those programs, he's Thomas Dolby's spiritual Blinded Me With (Kitchen) Science as he explains how yeast makes bread rise, or the lifecycle of grapes that make their way into your refrigerator.
So what the heck am I thinking by putting him in my list of favorite travel program hosts? Simple. A few years ago he toured American backroads and diners, riding a BMW motorcycle as he made his way across the United States during two seasons of FEASTING ON ASPHALT (a third series this changed to FEASTING ON WAVES, as Alton traded his Beemer for a boat). Alton's series was a wonderful and earthy dig into the heart of American comfort cuisine. The highway diners and waystations true travelers might encounter should they find themselves on a bike trip across the continent.
Samantha Brown -- (Who taught me "IT'S OKAY TO INDULGE")
"Okay," I can hear your voice in my head, "you're full of shit. Samantha Brown? Really?" Um.
Yes. Really. I know, I know. Endlessly perky and indulgent, Samantha Brown is indeed the poster child for the pre-digested Disneyesque light travel fare that is the antithesis of the more rugged, grittier Bourdain, Carmichael and Alton. But I figure this is my version of a guilty pleasure -- Samantha Brown makes travel fun. Yes, there's a degree of cotton candy in the way her shows present things. Samantha is not about muddy hikes through the mountains in a downpour, hunkering coldly in a two-person tent with wet shoes and stringy hair. Samantha is all about the luxury -- and she does it in a way where it doesn't feel as much like an obligatory snooty indulgence so much as a well-deserved dip in a world the majority of us cannot afford. She's our surrogate, as if we're sharing a secret and whimsical confetti-check weekend before returning to the real world we both wink-wink recognize awaits us outside the door. And in that, she's on my list for letting us dream right along with her. She's kind of my travel BFF, but the girl-next-door variety who won't incur a jealous wrath from our significant other.
Todd Carmichael -- (Who is teaching me "BE PASSIONATE")
The new kid on the block. If you're not familiar with Todd Carmichael it's not a huge surprise -- his program, DANGEROUS GROUNDS, is a recent addition to the Travel Channel schedule. Todd is the kind of guy you'd want in your corner when walking through dark alley downtown some night. He's a down to earth, genuine guy who clearly enjoys the adventure, and does a terrific job of explaining why certain things are worth the effort. A coffee guy -- the pun in the title, get it? -- who travels to some of the most unstable and dangerous parts of the world seeking exclusive deals on rare and tasty coffee beans.
It sounds odd, and for the most part you have to view his passion through his own lens -- the risks and challenges he endures seem out of proportion to the single cup of coffee he inevitably enjoys at the end of each show. But the show is direct and honest, and the danger appears to be quite real. When he whispers to his cameraman to hide the camera as they approach a police checkpoint the fear is real, the danger palpable. With Bourdain leaving The Travel Channel for -- presumably -- more profitable digs, the channel has done a commendable job of giving us a traveler even more honest and gritty. While you might not mind joining Anthony for a few drinks in a dive bar somewhere in Vietnam, Todd isn't someone you'd want to travel with as much as share a drink with him in a perfectly safe bar in Philadelphia listening to his latest gut-wrenching adventure.
And then we come to this.
Phil Keoghan - (Who told us there's "NO OPPORTUNITY TO BE WASTED")
Arguably the best and most traveled of all of the individuals listed above, Keoghan has had a positive impact on the world through his No Opportunity Wasted brand of business. In many ways I have to attribute my love of travel and emergence as a travel photographer and blogger to Phil's philosophy.
But, in the spirit of full honesty, "ethics" is a fundamental aspect of anyone who I endorse or respect.
A few weeks ago I published a column detailing my issue with the complete lapse of integrity on the part of two of the teams in the current season of THE AMAZING RACE. In the subsequent weeks the Producers have publicly ignored the issue, and Keoghan went so far as to tweet that it was not "against the rules" for one team to steal money from another. And there we are -- there is the rub. Had Phil or the Producers made public comment and condemned the move that would be one thing, but it is clear to me -- and evidently to thousands of others -- that they do not intend to act. Worse, they themselves may have committed a crime in enabling the thieves -- when there is ample video evidence of the crime -- to leave the country.
That, friends, is unforgivable.
I am looking forward to the remainder of episodes -- two to go -- in the hopes that the silence is because the issue is handled, and to make a public comment spoils the impact -- but I really don't expect that to be the case. In fact, since there are four teams left, and two of them were involved in the crime and, in fact, had an unfair advantage due to the stolen funds, it appears the eventual winner may have a good chance to be tainted. And that would be truly sad for the show and the integrity of everyone involved. I would like to think it's simply a misunderstanding, but the silence is deafening. But I continue to hope and would be absolutely thrilled if I'm wrong.
So, there you are. The list of travel-show people who have had an impact on my own life and approach to travel. And since the objective of THE THUMBNAIL TRAVELER is to SHARE THE ADVENTURE, it's fitting to mention those who, by their own sharing, have encouraged me to do the same.
They're the ones who have helped me discover just how big the world is and how little of it I have seen so far.