Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 2

Where does the Travel Channel take us? Rolf Potts embarks on a
one-week gonzo experiment to find out

JACKASS COMMENTATORS AND DUBIOUSLY RANKED DESTINATIONS
Day 2, Hour 17: 9:04 am.


The first Travel Channel show of the day has already begun by the time I wake up and turn on the TV. As the picture tube slowly comes into view I can hear some jackass droning on about the gentle wonder of interacting with elephants in Thailand. When the screen finally flickers on I realize that the droning jackass is me.

The show is 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes, which is the Travel Channel’s version of a VH1 clip-show where comedians poke fun at celebrities. Instead of comedians, this show features travel writers; the “celebrities” are places, and nobody makes fun of anything. In addition to Thailand, my commentary pops up in segments featuring Venice, Angkor Wat, the Grand Canyon, and the Greek island of Santorini.

The strange thing about this show is that when I initially did my talking-head interview it was entitled 25 Mind-Blowing Escapes — which means that at some point four destinations were scrapped. Instead of just lopping off the bottom four places, however, the show’s producers seem to have scratched out destinations at random. The country of Bhutan, for example, was originally hailed as the world’s fifth most mind-blowing escape; now, for reasons that aren’t explained, it’s not on the list at all. Hence the inherent arbitrariness of any TV show that ranks destinations like they were NCAA basketball teams. Somewhere in Bhutan, the tourism minister is probably hurling is clipboard against a locker room wall.
During a commercial break, I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth and notice that the
haggard, puffy-eyed face staring back from the mirror bears faint resemblance to the
chirpy, advice-spewing version of me that appeared on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. I’m
only beginning my second day of the experiment, but my TV marathon has already begun
to take a physical toll.


NOTES ON THE SEMIOTICS OF WATERPARKS

Day 2, Hour 18: 10:42 am. Desperate for variety, I’ve made my way down to the Plaza
Hotel gym, where I can watch the Travel Channel while I work the treadmill. The gym’s
aging TV screen is scorched with a faint grid of keno numbers, but for the most part
it suits my purposes. The only problem is that any time I start running faster than 20
minutes per mile I can’t hear anything but the sound of myself clomping along on the
treadmill.

This lends my TV viewing experience a curious new perspective. Right now I’m watching America’s Favorite Waterparks while running nine-minute miles. At the beginning of the hour, when I could hear the voiceover narration, this show struck me as a mildly informative little rundown of aquatic fun-parks in the United States. Without the sound, however, the show has become an incomprehensible video loop of teenagers racing down water-slides, young boys getting into splash-fights, and chubby families bobbing in wave pools. It’s hard to discern one water park from another. Amid the repetitive flood of images, I begin to notice a persistent visual pattern: Nary a minute passes without another shot of some massive aquatic gravity-tube ejaculating a swimmer through the air on a frothy gush of water.

Somehow I suspect a spunky 24-year-old northern California feminist is at this very
moment hashing out a PhD thesis entitled “Phallocentric Fun-Parks: A Lacanian
Symbology of Patriarchal Imagery and Recreational Male Privilege in American Hydro-
Amusement Communities.”

WHAT DO HOSTS DO WHEN THEY’RE NOT HOSTING?

Day 2, Hour 20: 12:55 pm. After nearly two hours of treadmill action I’m back up in my
hotel room, where I’m developing a crush on TV-host Samantha Brown. As I watch her
show, I’m thinking I’d like to marry her for the simple end of diversifying my bloodline
with perky, winsome offspring.

Today Samantha has been cavorting her way through Spain and Italy on a show called
Passport to Europe. At the moment she is learning how to flamenco dance. In previous
scenes she trained as a bullfighter, sampled horsemeat with Italian wine, reenacted a
scene from Romeo and Juliet, and guzzled beer in her hotel room. I like it that Brown is
always drinking on camera. I’m also charmed by her self-deprecating humor, and her raw
exuberance for most everything she encounters.

The weird thing about Samantha Brown, however, is that it’s hard to discern what she
does when she’s not gallivanting off on a weekend getaway to Valencia or Verona. Whereas personalities like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern work as chefs when they’re not on TV, Brown’s main line of work appears to be going on vacations for the Travel Channel. This makes it a tad confusing when she “escapes” to the Tuscan countryside or enthuses about “getting away from it all” at a spa in Baja. Just what is it that she’s getting away from? Isn’t that trip to the spa part of her job?

Hence, while it’s easy to imagine what Bourdain does in his spare time (eat, drink, bang
groupies), or what Zimmern does when he’s not filming Bizarre Foods (eat, sleep, look up adjectives to describe the taste of seared yak scrotum), I’m at a loss to envision what Samantha Brown does when she’s not pretending to go on holiday in front of a TV crew.

A part of me imagines her sitting on the floor of a trash-strewn Hell’s Kitchen apartment, snorting crystal meth and listening to Danzig records while she drills hollow-points into
ammunition for her .50-caliber Barrett M82 sniper rifle.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN DOES NOT SPEAK TRAVELESE

Day 2, Hour 21: 1:55 pm. I’ve noticed that there’s a sameness to the narrative language on all the Travel Channel shows. Since I began my TV marathon, both Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown have used the exact same phrases — “vacation paradise,” “land of contrasts,” “it doesn’t get any better than this” — to describe wildly different places and experiences. The words heaven,” “breathtaking,” “dreams,” “treasure,” and “unforgettable” are intoned like Travel Channel mantras, and just today I heard the phrases “hidden gem,” “secret gem,” and “unique gem” on three successive programs.

This type of language belongs to a distinctive media-dialect called “travelese,” a word journalist William Zinsser coined in his 1976 book On Writing Well. “Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes,” Zinsser noted. “It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing.” At the time Zinsser was alluding to print-based travel journalism, and 35 years later the overwrought cadences of travelese continue to plague magazine, newspaper, and guidebook writing.

The thing is, for all the consumer travel articles sopping with words like “quaint” and “wondrous,” the print world offers plenty of verbally disciplined, literary-minded travel reportage by writers like Peter Hessler, Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, Kira Salak, Gary Shteyngart, and Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, travel television does not appear to offer a comparable respite from its more mindless tropes: Almost without exception its program language is indecipherable from that of its commercials.

In saying this, I certainly don’t absolve myself from the equation. I’ve gone years without ever using the word “majestic” in a print story, but I used it twice in less than one minute of airtime on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. Beyond that, I described Venice as “romantic,” Angkor Wat as “magnificent,” and the sunset at Santorini as “magical.” Back when I was being interviewed for the show, I’d also pointed out logistical hassles and tourist hordes at all three places — but those simply aren’t the kinds of details that make it into TV clip- shows about travel destinations. Indeed, if the Travel Channel doesn’t seem to convey much critical or intellectual substance, it’s probably because television itself is a medium that doesn’t tolerate nuance and reflection.

The network’s sole exception to this phenomenon is Anthony Bourdain, whose No Reservations is at once counterintuitive, given to opinionated perspective, and self- aware of its limitations as a TV show. Yesterday Bourdain guided us off the sun- dappled tourist-trail to visit the eateries of “the three most fucked-up cities in America” — Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo. By the end of show he had done a fair amount of rust-belt dining, but he’d also given the audience subtle lessons in socio-economics, immigration history, and urban planning. In Buffalo, he refused to discuss hot-wings (“you can have Al fucking Roker describe them to you on some other show,” he said). Today’s Miami-based episode simultaneously skewers South Florida tourist clichés, documentary TV fakery, and the basic assumptions of every other food-travel show on television. A running joke of the episode is Bourdain’s stubborn avoidance of Miami’s most stereotypical cuisine-culture; he eventually relents during the final moments of the show. “I’ve finally done the Cuban thing,” he quips in the concluding scene, “satisfying my network masters’ request.”

YOUR MEDIA CRITICISM WILL DO YOU NO GOOD HERE

Day 2, Hour 31: 11:20 pm. I’m nearing the end of another full day of TV viewing. A show about amusement parks, Extreme Terror Rides: Death-Defying Drops, is flickering on my screen. According to my notebook, this is the eighth hour of programming today that has been dedicated to water parks or roller coasters.

Back when I was gearing up for this Travel Channel marathon, my primary guidebooks were media-studies classics like Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Todd Gitlin’s Watching Television. My hope was that these readings would help me understand the far-flung televisual landscape, lend my travel- TV analysis a postmodern flair, and make me sound smarter than I really am. Most of these writers argue that television is more about creating feelings and sensations than communicating information or conveying reality — and that has certainly been the case with what I’ve seen thus far.

The problem with my pre-trip media-theory research, however, is that I geared my expectations toward a cross-cultural mode of travel that doesn’t seem to exist on the Travel Channel. For example, I had hoped to harness the insights of science writer Bill McKibben, who pioneered the art of marathon-TV analysis in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information (which contrasted a full day of multi-channel television programming with a full day spent in nature). When McKibben analyzed travel shows 20 years ago, he noted the irony in the fact that the Travel Channel aired a special on Nuremberg without highlighting the city’s notorious reputation for Nazi rallies in the 1930s. “Three things make Nuremberg famous,” the Travel Channel chirped on the day McKibben was watching, “its Christmas market, Nuremberg gingerbread, and the Nuremberg sausage.”

If the Travel Channel hasn’t glossed over many foreign destinations in the past two days, it’s because it hasn’t shown many foreign destinations. Of the 31 television-hours I’ve experienced so far, I’ve spent less than two hours outside of the United States. Thirteen hours of programming have been dedicated to American junk food, 11 hours to American amusement parks. If visual media provides us with a grammar of seeing the world, as critic Susan Sontag once suggested, the Travel Channel appears to be telling us that the world doesn’t stretch very far beyond the local fun-park or burger stand.

[Read more of Rolf Potts' series Around the World in 80 Hours here]