Dispatch From Darwin: Discovering Asia In The Outback

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I was sitting in the Speakers Corner Café in the stunning (and unexpected) Parliament House in Darwin, a rare marriage between a Southeast Asian bungalow and a po-mo shout in light and glass; all around-as everywhere in central Darwin-were plaques recalling the Japanese air raids on the place in February 1942, and markers announcing, “An enemy bomb fell here and killed 10 people.” The biographies of some of the employees of Darwin’s post office who were lost in the attack were on prominent display on every side. And Sachiko Hirayama, a sweet, elegant and determined young woman from Nagasaki was telling me about how she was hoping to bring Japanese tour groups here to visit the sites where they had lost loved ones and so put old fears to rest.

Hirayama had been appointed by the Northern Territory’s new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, to act as a liaison with Japan-and such is the strangeness of the small town set amidst a huge territory thirty times the size of the Netherlands (with 1/60th of the population) that, within less than 24 hours of my return to Darwin last August, I bumped into Mills at a little café. Just one day before, he had been named Chief Minister and brought the Country Liberal Party back into power in the Top End after 11 years. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked me where I lived.

“Japan,” I said, and his eyes lit up. “The second call of congratulations I received was from the Consul-General of Japan. I am really interested in Japan. Seriously!” The fact that Japan is the Territory’s largest trading partner-and that the Japanese oil development company INPEX had already sunk $100 million into the exploration of gas fields nearby–was surely one reason; but it really did seem as if Darwin was suddenly realizing how well-placed it was to become a global player.

“Darwin is closer to Jakarta than to Canberra,” Mills went on, pointing out to a local journalist that he wasn’t “fluent” in Bahasa Indonesia, but had studied it at university in Jakarta. Then he began talking about his work with the “traditional owners” of the Territory.This couldn’t have flowed more naturally out of my very first taste of Darwin on this trip: as soon as I got off the plane from Melbourne, on a hot Sunday night, I took myself off to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, and realized, as I looked at the crocodile-foot back-scratchers on sale, the crocodile skulls being sold for $75, the crocodile-tooth headbands and crocodile-skin earrings, that the Top End still boasts an improbable, fantastic mix of New Agers and old salts.

A guy I might have seen in Goa was playing the didgeridoo, while three Aboriginal kids twirled themselves around in front of him. A strapping local cowboy was flogging whips. The next stall down in the makeshift assembly of shacks on a patch of grass across a ridge from the ocean was selling propeller planes made of beer cans; these were deftly brought into the new multi-culti order by a Chinese boy at the end of the row who had fashioned Mickey Mouse out of balloons.

You don’t come to the Top End, of course, to be part of the mainstream; in a territory larger than Italy, Germany, Japan and Britain combined (with a population 1/80th that of Shanghai), you have to define yourself in bold colors against the thousands of miles of red emptiness. I was offered soy candles amidst the crocodile and mud-crab rolls at the market, and saw tie-dye dresses for 3-year-olds for sale next to “night-display, sound-activated” t-shirts. I could get Chinese-made tacos or Fijian-stirred milk shakes, goatmilk soap or “dragon fruit sorbet.” The only governing assumption-and maybe this spoke for something essentially Australian-was that the one thing I’d never find was anything that was available at Woolworth’s (though the local Woolies, not so far away, was a huge emporium, complete with its own large liquor shop).

Privileged urban refugees eager to go back to the land seemed to be bumping into indigenous people taking their first uncertain steps into city life. And kids who had just left Kuta or Ko Phi Phi were walking into Thais and Filipinos and Indonesians who had come here to experience the life the kids thought they were fleeing. As Terry Mills had pointed out, the tag-line here about Darwin being closer to Bali than to Sydney speaks to something deeper than geography; here was an ever more Southeast Asian town that just happened to be talking with an Aussie twang.

I’d been to Darwin before, in 1988, the year of the Bicentennial. At the time, the sudden explosion of tropical green after hours of nothingness below, the Jurassic Park landscape of Kakadu National Park nearby, the scrappy little settlement of ferns and larger-than-life eccentrics trying to market their reptiles (a multi-national chain had recently constructed a whole hotel nearby shaped like a crocodile) had all made me feel I was on a different continent from Adelaide or Cairns. Now, with the prospect of oil nearby, and with Darwin offering the last word in freedom from hustle-bustle with relaxing ocean views, the local glossy lifestyle magazine was shouting “Uber Luxe” on its cover and advertising $3.5 million penthouse apartments overlooking the one-story narrow main streets. I might have been in a piece of Miami Beach airlifted to rural Utah.

Yet for all the gestures towards urbanism, the question the Top End still seems to ask remains: what do you do in an area with a population density lower than that of Pitcairn (an island that boasts all of 66 people)? One answer was afforded by the pungent local newspaper, the NT News, which informed me, on arrival, that one Territory man had racked up nearly 70 criminal charges in 7 months, and which also gave an account of a local hero who had saved a mate the previous day by disabling a croc with a screwdriver. Much of Darwin seemed to have the outlandish air of an Outback chapter of the Hells Angels. A car parked downtown had “X-Men” all over its sides, and a huge portrait of a superhero (or his enemy) on the back, declaring, “An Agnostic, Dyslexic, Insomniac Stayed Up All Night Wondering if there was a Dog”; a “Toyota Rescue Vehicle” nearby had placed a sign on its back window advising, “Patience, My Little Grasshopper.”

When faced with a tabula rasa, people can make of themselves anything they choose, perhaps. So the native strangeness of faraway towns like Darwin seemed interestingly deepened by all the people who flocked there in order to rewrite their destinies. Signs in Hangul script pointed me to one of the town’s ubiquitous churches and three Chinese characters-nothing else-adorned a banner atop a high-rise. The man who took my breakfast order at the Holiday Inn on the Esplanade-and rather amazingly, they were serving up “English Bacon,” fleshy and pink, as well as “American Bacon,” crispy and streaked (I’d never known there was a difference)-was Indian. So was the man who collected the dishes. Even in 1891, I recalled, seven in every ten people here, thanks to the booming gold mining industry, was Chinese.

Australia, for me, is a land that overturns all foreign ideas of what is central and marginal, what the exception, what the rule: at the War Memorial Church, in the center of Darwin, I found signs on every side advising, “Please do not leave Bags or Other Valuables in the Pews Unattended,” perhaps the first time I’d ever been warned against robberies in a church. But the longer I stayed in the country, the more I could see that the real fascination of the lonely continent lay not in the brawny exterior, nor only in the old, deep interior, but in the constantly evolving interplay between them.

One evening I found myself at a chic Italian restaurant, at the bottom of the tallest building in Darwin, across from a quiet man who told me how he had fought in Vietnam as a teenager with the Australian army. He had so lost his heart to the region, he said, almost shyly, that he had stayed on in Laos after his service finished and lived in Bali for some years. He still kept a place in Saigon. “To be honest,” he said-now he was a lawyer offering his expertise to indigenous causes–”the reason I came up here to Darwin was that I didn’t want to live in Australia. I felt more at home in Asia. Just the smell, as soon as you arrive at the airport, the night sounds, the climate; the whole thing is Asia.”

The man next to me-his air of warm confidence and ruddy complexion might have made him at home in a London club-turned out to be another lawyer working with the “traditional owners” in the Tiwi Islands, a 30-minute plane ride away from the town, who had spent years as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea; hearing that, the woman across from us started reminiscing about growing up as part of a missionary family in so rural a part of New Guinea that she was “educated under the house by my mum.” It seemed an everyday assembly, and yet there was an easy, lightly worn cosmopolitanism here that seemed both the rising feature of Australia and one of the things it could teach the larger world.

I had thought, when I arrived, and shuffled around the Sunset Park, that I was seeing the hyperdeveloped world meet the wilderness, the underdeveloped universe meet possibility, so that each side could check the other out. Perhaps I was. But every time I heard a story of what had brought someone here, I heard the sound of a fresh Australia, which is defining itself by everything that’s around and beyond it. Darwin seemed in large part a mild-mannered Chinese young man-I met them all over town-in specs, politely asking, “How’s yer day goin’?”

The next day, when I woke up, the cover of the N.T. News shouted, “MAN BITES CROC ON SNOUT.” I’d already read about a “community garden activist” who had run for office even though he had been convicted of killing a man. But by now I was able to see that such headlines were partly bluster and mostly about trying to satisfy expectations. I met loud voices and startling attitudes everywhere I went in the Top End; but it was in the silences, in everything people didn’t say, that something much more haunting and unique kept coming through.

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s ‘Better Than Fiction’

What is travel writing? Is the genre defined by its commitment to true-to-life recounting of the people, places and cultures we have experienced and lessons to be drawn from them? Or is travel writing something more malleable, simply a style of writing, true or not, that utilizes places and people as vehicles for a good story? The tension between these two competing definitions is at the heart of the new travel-themed anthology, “Better Than Fiction” by Lonely Planet.

“Better Than Fiction” is a collection of short travel-themed works by some of the world’s top literary fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Alexander McCall Smith. Edited by Gadling’s own Features Editor, Don George, each of the 32 included short stories plays with this notion of “truth in travel writing,” bringing to bear the storytelling skills of veteran fiction writers to the world of non-fiction travel writing. Each of the varied works relates a true-to-life story from the author’s personal wanderings around the globe, all told with the writers’ rich storytelling skills intact.

For anyone who considers themselves a voracious consumer of travel writing, “Better Than Fiction” will make for a refreshing and illuminating read. In each of the short stories there’s a richness of character and crispness to the dialogue that makes them feel like excerpted chapters from a novel. Considering the growing glut of “Top 10″ and “destination tip” travel journalism that exists online, it’s easy to forget the best travel writing works because it’s good storytelling, not merely a laundry list of destination facts and to-do’s. Great travel storytelling, like the work showcased in “Better Than Fiction,” reminds us that ultimately discovering the truth about the places we visit involves more than just restating the facts.

Pearls of wisdom and wanderlust from Pico Iyer

Last month the wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent author Pico Iyer published his 11th book, The Man Within My Head, an intriguing hybrid of autobiography and literary criticism that insightfully illuminates the life and work of Graham Greene – and of Pico Iyer. On his book tour, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Pico on stage twice, the first time on Jan. 26 in an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco and the second in Washington DC on Feb. 10 as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series that I host. Happily, as it turned out, these conversations traveled in quite different directions — but really, every conversation with Pico is an edifying journey, wherever it goes. Here I want to single out four pearls of wisdom I took away from our San Francisco odyssey.

1. Spring and summer, East and West

I began by asking Pico about the differences between the author of his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, and the man who wrote The Man Within My Head. This prompted him to reflect on how the older you grow, the less you know: “The sentences in my first book are delivered with a really bratty confidence. You know, ‘I know everything in the world because I’m 28 years old.’ And my new book is haunted by a sense of not knowing a thing, and that being the beauty of life but also the confoundingness of it.”

A little later he took these thoughts to new soaring levels:

“Partly I think it’s the difference between spring and autumn…. Graham Greene at the very end of his life said that there’s wisdom in age and it’s all about wishing you weren’t so wise. Yet autumn can see spring a lot better than spring can see autumn.

“I’ve always been fascinated by autumn. It’s my favorite season in the country that we both share as our secret home, Japan, because it can take in the whole cycle, because it knows everything is impermanent, and because it knows that the impermanence itself is rather permanent. All the leaves are falling, the cold is approaching, it’s getting darker, and the days are shortening, and that is all necessary to get back to spring. Whereas spring has a much more linear sense; it believes everything is moving in a forward direction. When I was a kid, I thought/expected I would know much more at 50 than I do at 20. Now I can see the progress moves cyclically rather than in a linear way, and follows the seasons rather than a manmade assembly line.”It’s a bit of the difference between the New World and the Old World. And as we talk about this, I’m thinking that the dance between spring and autumn is probably the dance between East and West. When I’m in Japan, I’m very conscious of California being a land of eternal summer, which is why our Japanese wives and so many of our Japanese friends long to be here. But it’s also the reason that people like you and I love to go to Japan, for that much larger picture, the roundedness. There are seasons in California, but there is the hope that you’re always pushing forward, whereas in Japan there’s a certain sanity for knowing that you’re ultimately going to come back to your grandparents’ place. For all the external changes in the world, for all the ways in which you’re shifting fashions with each passing month in Japan, ultimately you come back to the ancient verities. The new is only as important and valuable as the old that underwrites it.”

2. The travel writer: From information-saturation reporter to sage of silence and space

Pico has been a traveler from a very young age. As a student, he commuted regularly between a boarding school in England and his parents’ home in California. I asked him how travel has changed for him over the course of his lifetime, and he began his answer by returning to his first book and describing what he felt his role was as a traveler-writer when he wrote it.

“When I wrote that first book, I felt that what the world desperately needed was more information about our global neighbors. When I went to places like Burma and Tibet and even China in 1985, I thought most of my friends, neighbors, and such readers as I might have in California can never expect to see those places and barely know what they look and smell like, and feel like. So my job was to be an information-gathering machine, kind of an emissary, but certainly a representative to go and take in as many sights, sounds, facts, and sensations as possible, and just saturate the page with that almost like verbal television.”

That image led him to describe the very different role of the writer today:

“Now I feel like we all have much too much information and what the writer can offer is freedom from information, a way of stepping out of the rush and commotion and acceleration of the day, a way to try to put it in a much larger perspective and make sense of it. In my new book I deliberately made the sentences as long as possible, almost literally to extend the attention span of the reader and take her to those places that no multimedia mechanism or invention can do better. Writing can’t hope to compete with the internet or TV or any of our latest inventions, so it has to stake its claim in those places of silence and nuance, the spaces between the words and intimacy that those other mechanisms can’t claim or colonize so powerfully.”

3. The challenges and rewards of travel today: Surrendering the illusion of control

That image of the contemporary’s writer’s role and goal took Pico to the evolution of travel itself and the challenges facing contemporary travelers.

“In that sense I think travel has changed. If anyone in this audience were to go to Peru tomorrow she would be able to access it online. She would be able to get all the information she could possibly want. The challenge would be forgetting that, and going with a clear mind so that she’s seeing Peru as if for the first time.”

Which led us – via a detour through Don DeLillo’s new book and Pico’s own epiphanies in Jerusalem – to a subject about which we both feel passionately: the importance of vulnerability and surrender in travel.

“Travel is an act of humility,” Pico said, “and it’s a leap of faith-literally-because you’re trusting in the world. One reason I travel is that when I’m at home, I’m completely straight-jacketed in my assumptions. Again, I’m like this kid in my first book. I think I know it all. I think I’m on top of the world, that I can plan my life for the next ten years in ten minutes. The minute you’re in a bus in India, forget it. Nothing is in your control. You’re reminded of all the much higher forces, whether you ascribe religious names to them or just call them nature or fate or time or providence; there they are, and you are a speck on the horizon that they’re going to bat about randomly. It’s a very tough kind of shock therapy, but it’s good.”

4. How to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it

And then Pico took this thought to an even more poignant place:

“One of the things I have most appreciated in travel and do still is that it confronts you with moral and emotional tangles that it’s easy to sleepwalk past, to sidestep in one’s everyday life. You arrive on the streets of Havana and a stranger comes up to you, a Cuban, and shows you everything for a week, and couldn’t be kinder and more understanding and sympathetic, never asks for anything, opens all the doors of his country to you, and really gives you Cuba. Then, just as you’re about to board the plane, he says, ‘Please will you get me a green card?’

“What do you do with that? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but it’s a really important question to think about. When you’re in the same situation at home, somehow it’s easier to slide away from it, but there, when you return to your home, all you’re thinking about is this Cuban person waiting at the airport for a letter from his new friend that’s either going to open a new door or is going to, not close the door, but allow him some way to keep the hope alive in a situation with very little hope. It’s one of the things I love about Graham Greene; more than any other traveler, that’s what he was interested in, how to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Travel asks you that question at every second.”

How to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Yes, I think, the world thrusts innumerable challenges and incongruities at us constantly. Should we help our new Cuban friend try to get a green card – should we even suggest that there’s a glimmer of a possibility that we might be able to help him? Is that kinder or crueler? Should we give $5 to the woman in the weaving collective whom we just met, knowing that could transform her day, or her week, or her month? Should we give $5 to 5 of the women in the collective? Can you help me get a loom? A bicycle? A visa? A job?As we travel we weave a web of interlacing connections. What is the kindest thing to do?

Pico’s words moved me on stage and move me still, reverberating as a pebble dropped in a pool, restlessly rippling – probing me out of the comfortable corners, irresolveable, illuminating the nuances in my ever-expanding ignorance, all I don’t know, can’t know, the jostling confoundingness of the day-to-day journey, life-enriching – within my head.

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]

Pico Iyer: The surprising charms of Little Rock, AR

Who’d have thought that Little Rock, Arkansas, would prove so diverting?

Paris, Rio, Kyoto: We know pretty well what we’re going to encounter (or at least to savor) as soon as we set foot in any of those cities; part of their gift, polished over centuries, is for knowing how to play themselves to perfection and how to give every visitor just what she wants and expects. Such places are the equivalent of the traveling world’s celebrities, used to projecting themselves compellingly even off-screen. But there’s a different kind of charm in those lesser-known towns that will never be regarded as stars, but that can take on almost any role you ask of them: the character actors among sites, you could say. They offer you unexpectedness.

Take — of all places — Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, take it, please, as a New York comedian might say). If I knew anything about the capital of the “Natural State” before I went there recently, it was that it was small, forgettable, and, as one distinguished travel-writer had written to me, “intriguingly forlorn and melancholy.” Bill Clinton started his political life there, I knew, but that seemed the exception that proved the rule; like many people, I had driven through it on the huge freeway I-40, going across the U.S., and like most people I had taken pains not to stay there.

In short, Little Rock was perfectly positioned to disarm and entertain me as well-worn Paris, Rio, and Kyoto perhaps never could. The first two people I met after I left my hotel turned out to be serious students of Buddhism, one of whom knew and had studied under the one Zen master I happen to know in Kyoto. A brawny guy from Memphis stopped me on the street, outside the Arkansas Literary Festival, and asked me which of Graham Greene’s novels I thought his best. Most wonderfully of all, the town I saw turned out to be an unlikely center of irony, and even self-mockery; at the stately Old State House, the proud and distinguished building from 1842 where Clinton had held his victory celebrations, one whole room was devoted to the history of “Bubbas and hillbillies.”

* * * * *

One beauty of a city of surprise is that at first it offers you little at all, or only what you might have feared. I disembarked in Little Rock on a sultry afternoon in early spring, to find that its baggage carousels delivered luggage at a Samoan pace. The person who was meant to meet me was nowhere in sight. I went over to a public phone booth, to see that it had been stripped of its instrument. The same was true of almost every other public phone booth. Finally I did find a phone, but it gave me no dial tone. I found another, and it was equally mute. People were sitting in their molded plastic chairs as if on their stoops along the Mississippi, watching the world not go by.

“Things move slow round here,” said the sweet woman who did at last arrive to take me into town. “Town” seemed at first blush a euphemism: downtown was over almost before we got there. A convention center, a couple of tall buildings and then a wasteland of empty lots and deserted streets, lean black boys in hoodies drifting across the vacancy, past boarded-up stores that suggested that all life was long gone. I remembered coming into Louisville on just such an afternoon two years before; there was the same, aromatic sense of having come upon some broken capital long after the nation’s leaders had absconded with all the cash.

Then, however, I stepped into the Capital Hotel — a gleaming white historical building with an elevator so large that it had once transported Ulysses S. Grant’s horse, it was said (and once the whole state legislature) — and a smooth man in a suit with perfectly waved brown hair approached me. He made me think, somehow, of a saxophonist doubling as a used-car dealer. “I’m Billy,” he said, “and if there’s anything you want…” The next thing I knew, he was showing me around my room as charmingly as if it were his bachelor pad. A walk-in closet. Some Arkansas toffee, free of charge. The menu to the haute restaurant, Ashley’s, downstairs.

I walked out into the night, three hours later, to find the River Market district down the street abuzz. The sound of blues was pouring out of several raucous bars on a single block. Bouncers as wide as they were tall sat on stools on the sidewalk, giving prospective customers the once-over. Good old boys were revving up their Harleys in a nearby parking lot, while teams of young ladies with cheerleader-perfect hair were fingering shrimp in Flying Fish and other of the restaurants with their windows open to the night. The entertainment district stretched across all of five blocks, but it packed into that small area enough tattoos and blasts of metal and versions of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to keep a stadium entertained for a good long while.

* * * * *

Another beauty of a place like Little Rock is that all the sights mentioned in the tourist brochures are within a few blocks of your hotel, and may give you what you never thought to ask for. Next to the great glass structure that is the Clinton Presidential Library is a Clinton School of Public Service and, not far from that, a huge place called the Heifer International Center, dedicated to social justice from Rwanda to Peru. A quaint house near the huge Public Library was selling used books and coffee and knick-knacks. A sleek Ikea-worthy café serving up specialty foods was run by an urbane gent from Delhi (“There can’t be many Indians in Little Rock,” I tried. “Oh,” came the answer, “there are so many of us here!”). In a hippie coffeehouse I sampled, the fliers were advertising “Extreme Midget Wrestling,” coming to town very soon.

Perhaps what I least expected to find in Arkansas was a sense of openness and even mischief. I picked up the local paper to read a piece by someone who presented himself as a “born and raised Southern Baptist,” yet delighted in an appearance by Christopher Hitchens, here to argue that God is not great. A stranger who identified himself to me as “born and raised on the front row of the Southern Baptist Church” asked me if I thought, from my travels, that faith was collapsing around the world. When I said no, he looked decidedly disappointed. A young woman in advertising told me she was reading aloud the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee to her husband. He, in turn, was writing a book on Tolkien.

Some places — Britain, Canada, and Australia are obvious examples — win one over, whatever their deficiencies, by their refusal to take themselves too seriously. Others (dare I mention Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles?) seem to be lacking all sense of perspective regarding themselves and their limitations. But I never expected to find Little Rock proudly, and impenitently, in the former category. “The corruption of law and justice has often proved a challenge to Arkansas society,” said a sign in the Old State House exhibition, apparently with delight. The state it was celebrating, it went on, with almost audible glee, has historically been “a magnet for the unlawful.” In a nearby room were a pair of Florsheim shoes worn by the current governor and a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton, in shades and leather jacket, playing his sax on national television. Downstairs, his running shoes from 1982 were in another display case.

Arkansas politics in the 20th century, I read in yet another room in the building, was “a circus hitched to a tornado” (and I remembered that Mike Huckabee, the guitar-playing Christian who had briefly won the nation’s attention as a presidential candidate three years ago and once issued a pardon to Keith Richards, was also from here). Sure enough, not far away, I found Huckabee’s Guitar Pick and his Duck Call in a case.

On a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, two boys with art-college glasses, who looked as if they should have been at an open-mic event in a grunge café, stood at the center of the entertainment district, wearing placards that said, “There is only one Church in the Bible” and decrying every other Christian denomination. Some frat boys scribbled out a sign — “This guy is a moron” — and placed it next to one of the boy-evangelists, and posed for a cell-phone photo. On the other side of the street, two older men sipping Free Trade espresso and munching on no-fat muffins chuckled with delight. Getting into the spirit of theological debate, one cool-looking character in a two-tone shirt and shades stepped forward to engage the placard-wearers in conversation.

“You not talkin’ ’bout the Kingdom! You believe in Jesus?”

“Yes I do, sir.”

“Then why you think those who believe in Jesus are goin’ to Hell?”

“If you read Romans 8, sir…”

“You sayin’ we believe in Jesus, but we goin’ to Hell?”

The challenger’s three friends laughed approvingly. The Buddhists I met took me to a pan-Asian restaurant in a mini-mall serving Thai curries and sushi under beautifully framed pictures of faces from Mongolia and Laos and Tibet. Nearby, a bridge was lit up like the one across the Bosporus in Istanbul.

“It really wasn’t what I expected at all,” said one of my hosts, a stylish woman in her early sixties with frosted-blonde hair (who was working hard to try to eliminate capital punishment in the state). “There are a lot of people from other places who have found that this is a good place to live.” I recalled the friendly young woman, who volunteered her free time to teach adults to read, pointing out to me the condos in one tall building at the center of town, and saying that they were the priciest places in town (the $250,000 price tag she cited for them would have made them cheaper than the cheapest places in my hometown in California).

On arriving in Little Rock, I had wondered how someone as charming, quick, smooth, and intelligent as the 42nd president of the United States could have emerged from here as if from the forehead of Athena. By the time I left, I was thinking that much of the city along the sluggish Arkansas River was no less supple and surprising. Imagine — though this may not be for everyone — Bill Clinton expanded to the size of a metropolis. You can’t find that in Paris, Rio, or Kyoto. Or even in Washington, D.C.


Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | cliff1066; cliff1066; eschipul; Afroswede; StuSeeger]