Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 3

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

SAMANTHA BROWN NEEDS A DRINK
Day 3, Hour 36: 12:51 pm.

Just one day after having declared my infatuation with Samantha Brown, I’m beginning to feel like the love has faded. As with many relationships, our falling out has been a slow accumulation of irritants.

Since noon, Samantha has been riding hot air balloons, kayaking, and attending drag- queen brunches in Washington, DC and New Mexico. She’s been her usual gregarious self, but I’ve begun to bristle at her compulsion to laugh at things that aren’t all that funny, her tendency to affect a faint accent when chatting with people who aren’t fluent in English, and her habit of talking over her interview subjects when she gets excited. Sometimes she seems downright ditzy, like the time she sizes up a lunch-counter chilidog in DC and asks her server if she’s supposed to pick it up and eat it. (As opposed to what, Samantha? Hanging it over your fireplace?)The true deal-breaker comes when Passport to Great Weekends drops in on a Santa Fe shamanic healer who appears to have been dreamed into existence by the makers of This is Spinal Tap. All of the hackneyed Aquarian stereotypes make an appearance during the three- minute segment — the quivering maracas, the middle-aged Caucasian shaman-lady invoking the name of “mother earth,” the ridiculously vague messages from the spirit world — but Samantha just blushes and grins at mystical revelations that would probably apply to 80 percent of the U.S. population. (Sample: “You have a lot of dreams and desires, you just haven’t come into a relationship with them.”) When the shaman shares a handful of insights that could have been divined by anyone with a Wikipedia-grade understanding of what a Travel Channel host might like to hear (“you have a desire to unite people from different cultures”), Brown gushes that she feels a new sense of purpose.

Looking back on what I’ve experienced of Samantha Brown in the past three days, I’m pretty sure her most genuine and effective scenes have come when she’s been drinking. Next season on Passport to Great Weekends, I’d love to see Samantha go back to Santa Fe with five shots of tequila under her belt and tell that New Age dingbat to stop blowing sunshine up her ass.


WHEN TRAVEL TV HOSTING GETS REAL.
Day 3, Hour 38: 2:45 pm. If I haven’t said much about Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, it because he doesn’t offer much to riff on: Despite the name of his show, he’s the most conventional and fundamentally grounded host in the Travel Channel lineup.

He’s the network’s equivalent of the short white guy on the basketball team who sinks all
his free throws.

I don’t mean that in a snarky way: Zimmern is skilled at establishing good-humored chemistry with his interview subjects, and his segments are sprinkled with solid facts about local geography, history, and culture. His penchant for colorful food comparisons (alligator ribs are “seafoody, like a mild crab”; head cheese is “really just pig jello”) offers viewers a tangible sensory reference and keeps the show from turning into a one- note culinary freak show.

Ironically, the most arresting moments on Bizarre Foods come when the host gets caught off-guard and his good-natured fundamentals unravel. Today, for example, Zimmern is eating his way through Ecuador, and despite the charm of his guinea pig restaurant scene (“it’s like picking out a lobster,” he notes, “just go to the pen and point to the one you want to eat”), the show gains a new level of energy when a rainstorm sends his Amazon jungle excursion into disarray. The stitched-together footage of this incident, which was obviously a rather miserable experience at the time, feels more evocative of an actual travel situation than any of the show’s more conventionally exotic setups.

Watching this, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s observation about what happens when a stray cat wanders onstage during a play. The cat, Twain notes, is more intriguing to watch than the dramatic performance because it is not bound by the rules of narrative probability. In the same way, travel — and, by proxy, travel TV — doesn’t truly get interesting until real events send preparations astray and the traveler is forced to deal with the unexpected.

After a rain-soaked Zimmern munches jungle ants and piranha meat in the Amazon, he is whisked off to see an Ecuadorian witch doctor. At first, when the shaman rubs Zimmern’s half-clothed body with a live guinea pig, the encounter plays out like a standard cross-cultural sight gag. But soon the witch doctor begins to whip the TV host with a bundle of nettle-like twigs, raising angry little welts along his arms and torso. “This isn’t funny anymore,” an increasingly panicked Zimmern implores to his off-screen handlers.

But of course it is funny — not just because of the slapstick factor, but because he has just

given us an unrehearsed glimpse into the world behind his show.

THE GHOSTS ARE NOT IMPRESSED

Day 3, Hour 45: 9:32 pm. The past few hours have taken me through four episodes of infrastructure porn (Top Ten Bridges, World’s Best Megastructures, etc.) and four episodes of multi-city binge eating (Man v. Food). Now I’m watching a show called Ghost Adventures, which follows a three-man camera crew as they lock themselves overnight in purportedly haunted buildings and try to document paranormal activity. The program is one of the Travel Channel’s more popular offerings, but after a half hour of watching, I can’t grasp its appeal. It strikes me as the kind of show excitable 13-year-old boys might watch on a Friday night when they’ve grown bored of playing video games and masturbating.

Tonight the Ghost Adventures team is investigating England’s Ancient Ram Inn, which
is reputed to be infested with all manner of malevolent spirits. The inn is overseen by an
eccentric old codger who tells our ghost-hunters that the structure was built over a 5,000-
year-old pagan burial ground and is thought to contain the bones of children who were ritually sacrificed. Naturally, this intriguing supposition raises a lot of questions. How, for example, do we know that the burial ground is 5,000 years old? What kind of pagans would have been living here at that time, and what do we know of their funerary rites? If bones have indeed been exhumed on the grounds of the inn and they do indeed belong to children, how does one determine if they are the product of some evil ritual?

Unfortunately the ghost-hunting team, which is led by a self-serious metrosexual named Zak Bagans, possesses the combined reportorial acumen of a jar of Miracle Whip. Instead of calling in the counsel of archeologists and cultural historians, they instead invite the perspective of a “witch,” who turns out to be a portly local gal clad in a shiny crayon cape, cherry-red hair-extensions, and a silver tiara. After performing some kind of dagger ceremony (“I call upon the elemental of sylph!” the witch intones), the Ghost Adventures team members prepare themselves for what they call “lockdown.”

I never am able to work out the precise methodology of a lockdown, but apparently it involves a lot of yelling, swearing, and rushing around in the dark with sound recorders and night-vision cameras. Most any ambient noise in the house is immediately identified as ghost activity; seeming door-creaks and hall-drafts are recorded, “enhanced,” and given subtitles (example: “I don’t like you!”) that don’t seem to correspond to the noises in question. Zak and his sidekicks alternate between hollering threats at presumed ghosts and yelping with fear at random noises.

Imagine three stoners with community-theater experience getting together to reenact the Blair Witch Project, and you pretty much get the gist of what I’m watching right now.

TELEVISION FATIGUE, DAY THREE

Day 3, Hour 48 (plus 1): 1:45 am. Having fallen asleep midway through Ghost Adventures, I wake up hours later with the unsettling feeling that I, too, am on “lockdown.” Despite my glib pronouncements about the virtual adventure of my Travel Channel marathon, three days in a hotel room has turned me into a bloated, anxious, cabin-fevered ghost of myself. Hoping to improve my spirits, I head out into the streets of Las Vegas for a wee-hours stroll.

The Plaza Hotel sits at the head of Fremont Street in the aging downtown district of Vegas. The pedestrian walkway here is awash in flashing neon and filled with people: old men dressed in sweat pants; obese couples wearing matching white athletic shoes; groups of college guys clutching large, football-shaped cups full of yellow alcoholic slush. 1980′s hits by artists like Tone Lōc and Steve Winwood blast out over public-address speakers. Strip-club marquees tout a feminine ideal that hinges on Eastern European bone structure and overzealous chest enhancement. Casinos glitter in every direction, advertising music extravaganzas, complimentary slot tokens, all-you-can-eat buffets. Kiosks offer cheap jewelry, bumper stickers, novelty underwear.

On any other day I might have seen this place as an epicenter of low-rent artificiality — but after three waking days of watching travel television, Fremont Street feels startlingly true to life. I walk the streets for nearly two hours, drunk on fresh air and the sight of real human beings.

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