Talking Travel with the Filmmakers of PBS’s new travel series, Roughing It

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat are a couple of fresh filmmakers who, on a whim, decided to fly to Mongolia, where they managed to camp with a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders, challenge a provincial wrestling champion to a match, and drink tea with Mongolian president Nambaryn Enkhbayar. Oh, and they’re just 23.

Their half-hour documentary, Roughing It: Mongolia, will be making its premier later this summer on PBS, and they’ll be turning it into a series, called what else but Roughing It, coming out in late 2009. Here’s more from our interview:

What traveling experiences have you guys had before setting on this documentary?

CHRIS: My first real adventure travel experience was with Keith during the summer of our sophomore year in college. We had arranged jobs as English teachers in Guangdong, China. But the morning we were supposed to leave, we got a frantic call from the Chinese school administrator: “The children have been poisoned and the school is closed. You cannot come anymore. I’m very sorry!” But, luckily, they didn’t cancel our airline tickets. So we went to China with no plan whatsoever. We ended up as extras in a Chinese rap music video, hitchhiking 19,500 feet up the Himalaya in the back of a dump truck, and steamboating down the Yangtze River with thousands ofThree Gorges Dam refugees. We were hooked. From that trip, we realized there was a really good chemistry of us two on the road. Almost effortlessly, we met fascinating people and found ourselves in fascinating situations

KEITH: Chris has lived abroad and I have traveled throughout Europe on a number of trips. But we both agree that it wasn’t until we got away from the tourist trail and left the city lights behind that we truly found adventure. In China, we pushed ourselves hard to put away the travel guides and rely on our instincts and on those we met to take our travels to the next level. What we learned led us to the incredible adventure we found in Mongolia.

How’d you know what to do and see in Mongolia? How can readers avoid the Lonely Planet trail and really rough it?

: It’s simple, but my best advice is to be curious. I’m surprised at how many people I see who spend most of their day finding the cheapest hostel, hunting down the pizza place in the guidebook, and getting drunk with the Australians at the backpacker bar. You have to think like a journalist–meet people, ask questions. Get over whatever timidity you might have. Hunt around in the strange parts of town, ask to go along with people. If you’re respectful and genuinely interested, they will welcome you into their lives and culture.

KEITH: As Chris mentioned, a little respect will go a long way when you’re trying to rough it. Regard for those who live in the country you’re visiting-sometimes, just a smile-opens doors to festivals, celebrations, restaurants, and people that you would never find in the best travel guides. No matter how remote or ‘off the beaten path’ your travel guide claims it is, if you’re reading it, so are thousands of other travelers. We’ve had tremendous luck meeting interesting people, and finding once-in-a-lifetime situations. And I know our success meeting interesting people has been because of the attitude we have when we’re traveling.

How did you land the chance to drink tea with the Mongolian president?

CHRIS: A lot of phone calls, e-mails, and pestering the Ambassador– plus some tactical exaggeration. We had a paper-thin resume at that point, so we had to stretch it. I think the president was a little surprised when two kids showed up for the interview in running shoes and wrinkled polo shirts.

Is Mongolia very difficult to travel through on your own?

CHRIS: Mongolia is a challenging place for independent travelers. There are less than 1,000 miles of paved road in the country, which complicates the logistics for getting anywhere. In the first week of filming, we had to sneak around a Bubonic plague quarantine. I broke three ribs after getting thrown off a horse. Keith and I both puked after a dozen bowls of distilled yak milk–yak vodka–at a traditional wedding ceremony. And I would guess everyone who travels in Mongolia would have similar experiences. It’s the kind of place where adventure finds you.

KEITH: A perfect example of how physically demanding travel in Mongolia is what happened when we were tracking down an elusive tribe of nomadic reindeer herders. Our guide assured us it would take five hours on horseback to find them. Ten hours later, after crossing snowy mountain passes and miles upon miles of rocky, bumpy paths, the sun was setting and we hadn’t found the nomads. We had no tent and it was freezing cold-it was late fall and we were on the border of Siberia. All we could do that night was scrounge up some wood, make a fire, and huddled around it all night. The next day, we got back on our horses and rode another day before we found the nomads. If that wasn’t difficult traveling, I don’t know what is.

CHRIS: But even though you’re miserable at the time, these are the kind of challenges that make the best stories later. So, it’s difficult, yes. But to a lot of travelers, including myself, that’s a plus. Maybe a masochistic plus, but still a plus.

Would you talk a bit about the process of convincing a television network to run your documentary?

CHRIS: Like starting out in any of the arts, you have to pay your dues. I was working as a night security guard in Sacramento, editing the show and making phone calls during the day. Eventually, if the project has potential, some kind soul will take interest. We found some amazing support from KVIE, our local PBS station. Particularly two guys, Mike Sanford and Tim Walton, who spent a lot of time giving us editorial guidance and advice on the business end. They helped us craft an interesting travelogue into a polished PBS program. It was a long process. It was our first show and a steep learning curve every step of the way.

KEITH: It was just before Christmas, fourteen months after we had wrapped up filming in Mongolia, when we got our big break- a phone call from one of the major PBS distributors. Their development manager called and said, “I like giving good news during the holidays. We’d like to pick up Roughing It for national distribution.” Christmas came a little early for Chris and I last year.

CHRIS: We’re thrilled to be airing on PBS. It’s one of the few television outlets that respects its audience’s intelligence. It’s the only major network where independent producers have complete control over their work. And our travel documentary hero, Michael Palin, airs on PBS. His Himalaya series is a masterpiece and was a big, big inspiration for us.

Can you give us a preview of the eight-part series, Roughing It, coming out next year on PBS?

KEITH: Roughing It: The Great Pacific will take you through some of the most exotic and remote countries on the planet. We’re in the process of mapping out a rough path through Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Chris and I will definitely be packing our pepto bismol and dramamine as we island hop across Oceania and delve into the indigenous cultures that have successfully fended off Western influence.

CHRIS: For better or worse, I think what ultimately sold us on the Pacific was the same thing that sold us on Mongolia: the exotic factor. Keith hanging out with cannibals–what in the world could be more compelling than that?

For more information about Roughing It, visit their website. They’re also on Youtube and MySpace.