A Subjective Guide to the Budget Hotels of the Orient

In Asia, most luxury hotels have been fine-tuned to eliminate the prospect of unpredictability. Specific amenities aside, a given Ritz-Carlton or Shangri-La property is designed to feel the same from city to city. This ensures a consistent level of comfort for clients, but it rarely makes for distinctive travel memories.

The budget hotels of Asia, on the other hand, are charming precisely because you can’t predict what kind of experiences await from destination to destination. Guidebooks might offer general information about prices and services, but it isn’t until you encounter them first-hand (in the context of your own personal idiosyncrasies) that you get a sense for how these budget hotels can enhance your travel experience.

This in mind, here’s my subjective guide to some of the cheapest, frumpiest hotels in the Orient:

Ngoc Linh Hotel, Kontum, Vietnam
$12 for a private room; $5 for a dorm room (tel: 84-60-864560)
The owner’s daughter, a cute, almond-eyed child, is scared of you. Whenever you walk through the lobby, she bursts into tears. Though you have enough money for a private room, you elect to stay in the dorm. The only other occupant is a Japanese backpacker. He ties a beer can to the end of a shoelace and bangs it on the floor because he thinks there are rats under the beds. When you return for a second night, you notice that the maids have turned off the ceiling fan and stolen your bananas, but they did not bother to actually clean the room. That evening you notice that the owner’s daughter is no longer scared of you. You also notice that she is eating a banana.Jackson’s Hotel, Jabalpur, India
$10 a night (tel: 91-761-323412)
Manoj, a Brahmin-caste pharmaceutical salesman you met in the lobby, has taken you under his wing. One day he invites you to a colorful Hindu wedding. You take lots of photographs there, because this is the kind of thing you imagined you’d photograph before you started traveling. Manoj dresses in American fashions, so it never occurs to you to take his picture. Each night, back in your room, you call the front desk and a watery-eyed Sikh brings butter chicken to your room for 100 rupees. On the fourth night the Sikh tells you the price has gone up to 105 rupees. The difference is little more than a dime, but you never order butter chicken from the Sikh again.

Santyphab Hotel, Savannakhet, Laos
$1.50 a night, (tel: 856-41-2122777)
The owners have obviously stopped caring about the upkeep of the facilities, and this makes your room more interesting. A previous traveler has drawn a rough map of the world onto the wall over the bed, and many people have penciled in comments about the places they’ve been. Under the map, in big letters, someone has written: “FREE TIBET (inquire at front desk).” You dig out your ballpoint pen, but can’t think of anything clever to write. You notice that the small window in the bathroom is broken, and a bird has made a nest in the empty frame. Later, while you’re taking a shower, the bird flies in and sits in the nest. Taking great pains not to scare the bird, you creep back into the room, fetch your camera, and take a photo. When this photo comes back from the developer dim and blurry, you can’t recall why you found it so important to take the picture in the first place.

Momo’s Hostel, Tel Aviv, Israel
$8 a night, (tel: 972-3-5287471)
The kid from Los Angeles shows you a Star of David tattooed on his thigh. He tells you that his father is Mexican and his mother is Jewish. When you mention you were in Syria last week, he says that Arabs are putos, and that he would visit Syria only if he were driving an Israeli army tank. Your other dorm-mate is Charley, a middle-aged man from England. Charley keeps talking about how he quit drinking five days ago, so you congratulate him and wish him good luck. A blonde South African girl tends the bar downstairs. She is traveling with her mother. They are both beautiful, and this makes Charley the Englishman sad. You start talking to a group of Italian travelers, and when you turn to Charley again, you see that he is quietly downing a glass of whiskey. Unlike other hostels in Tel Aviv, Momo’s has no curfew, so you leave with the Italians to go nightclubbing.

Crystal Inn, Phuket, Thailand
$10 a night, (tel: 65-7621-88702)
The bellboy makes you nervous, because he insists on pointing out how everything in the room works — the lights, the water, the windows. You already know how these things work, but you give him a tip anyway. When you leave the next day, you steal one of the towels to make up for the towel you misplaced two days before, on Phi Phi Island. When the bellboy chases you down the alley to ask for the towel back, you pretend you don’t know what he’s talking about. You are obviously in the wrong, but you keep thinking back to how he really didn’t deserve that tip.

Camel Caravan Guesthouse, Dahab, Egypt
$6 a night, (tel: 20-69-5794004)
Your minivan arrives late, and you choose the Camel Caravan because it is the nearest hotel to your drop-off point. When you awaken the following morning and order tea in the courtyard, you recognize several people you met the week before in Cairo. Of these four people, Paul and Dan will go on to become your good friends; you will later hang out together in San Diego. A third person, Nele, tells you how she lost her little toe in a go-kart accident when she was a child in Belgium. Her friend, Stefie, will give you a haircut on the roof of the hotel. You and Stefie will later become lovers, and she will invite you to spend Christmas with her in Brussels. You will accept, but the affair will turn sour because in Belgium you are not the same person for her that you were for her in Egypt.

Smiley’s Guesthouse, Siem Reap, Cambodia
$6 a night, (tel: 855-63-852955)
A Canadian traveler in the courtyard is headed for the Thai border, and he is trying to give his marijuana away. The marijuana sits in a small pile on a crumpled piece of brown paper. He cups the paper with two hands, as if it were a small and fragile animal. You tell him no thanks, because you don’t smoke marijuana; other travelers tell him that they already have more marijuana than they can smoke. Finally, the Canadian traveler gently places the marijuana onto the communal dining table and walks off. Everyone who sees this smirks in amusement. Later, when your friends ask you what Cambodia is like, you will tell them this story.

[flickr image via katclay]

What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800′s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

[flickr image via Ian @ The Paperboy]

Nova Scotia, Cuban-Celtic-style

One of the best things about travel is the ongoing chance to have your most basic assumptions overturned by the unexpected realities of a new place. This happened to me a few years ago, when I traveled to Havana to learn salsa dancing, and instead wound up learning how to play the bagpipes.

Bagpipes, I discovered, aren’t some recent, quirky anomaly in this part of the Caribbean: The instrument was brought to Cuba in the late 19th century, when immigrants from Galicia and Asturias — Celtic regions of Spain — settled on the island. The bagpipers I met during my visit to Havana weren’t middle-aged hobbyists, either — they were hip young Cubans with a genuine passion for Celtic music.

Almost two years after I befriended these Cuban bagpipers, I had the privilege of accompanying them to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for the fantastic Celtic Colors International Festival, a nine-day celebration of global Celtic music. Here, I was able to see my Cuban friends not just as musicians, but as first-time international travelers. What they found fascinating about Canada (such as the chaotic abundance of a Wal-Mart superstore) helped me see North America in a whole new way.


The audio slideshow above helps tell this story of my friendship with the bagpipers of Havana. Since that experience, they have gone on to host their own international Celtic music festival, called CeltFest Cuba, each spring in Havana. For more information, check out CeltFest Cuba’s Facebook page.

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

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

THE REAL WORLD IS LACKING IN PLOT-RESOLUTION

Day 5, Hour 67: 12:53pm. This morning, while playing hooky from my Travel Channel marathon, I was nearly robbed by a couple of con artists in a downtown Las Vegas alleyway. Or at least I think I was.

It all started during Chowdown Countdown, a program which (in keeping with the junk-food programming of the past couple days) was on a six-hour mission to reveal the top 100 places in America to eat oneself into a food coma. I lost my patience with the show three hours in, and went out to wander the streets of downtown Las Vegas.

I wasn’t two blocks from my hotel when an over-friendly fellow wearing mirrored sunglasses sidled up and asked me the time. His blond hair was parted in the middle and gray at the roots, and he sported a faded flannel shirt that made him look like a lumberjack from some 1980′s paper towel commercial. I told him it was half past eleven; he fell into step with me and announced that he was a professional gambler. After a few minutes of banter, he suggested I go with him to “win some money” at the Golden Nugget casino.

Everything about this man’s manner — his calculated gregariousness, his curiosity about how long I’d been in town, his quick insistence on moving to a different location — marked him as a tourist-town hustler. But after four days in front of a hotel-room TV, I was as energized by the novelty of human conversation as I was curious to know what he was up to. As we walked and talked a few more blocks, however, the man made brief eye contact with a wiry, hard-faced, brown-haired guy who fell into step behind us when we took a shortcut through a parking-garage alley. Suddenly spooked, I spun on my heels and walked back out to the street. Neither man said anything or tried to stop me.Now, back in my room, still hopped up on adrenaline, I’m having trouble focusing on the Travel Channel’s ongoing parade of cheeseburgers and jumbo burritos and cheery voice-overs. What kind of scam, I wonder, were the paper-towel lumberjack and his partner running? Was it some orchestrated grift that involved actual gambling, or was it a standard-issue mugging? Was it a day-long confidence scheme designed to fool me out of thousands, or were they just looking to score a fast ten or twenty? Is it possible that the guy wasn’t a con artist at all — just an oddly outgoing gambler with a creepy friend?

It’s difficult to know for sure, since — unlike the folks on television — I don’t have a voice-over narrator to explain what just happened.

IT’S NOT THAT HARD TO MAKE FUN OF TELEVISION

Day 5, Hour 78: 10:46pm. The home stretch of my TV marathon is devoted to two hours of a show called America’s Worst Driver. On the screen, half-a-dozen contestants take turns steering their cars through a wacky parking-lot obstacle course. The loser, we are continually reminded, will have their car destroyed by some kind of giant robotic dinosaur. I glance down at my notebook, where after 45 minutes of watching this show, I’ve scribbled and underlined a single word: “Forgettable!” I can’t help but think how much better this show would be if it skipped the obstacle course and forced contestants to, say, pass a driving course in Beijing, or ride motorcycles across India’s Grand Trunk Road during the monsoon, or steer school buses through the Peruvian Andes.

Part of my ambivalence with America’s Worst Driver, no doubt, is rooted in the repetition and physical tedium of experiencing TV nonstop for the better part of one week. Had I just watched, say, the “Rolf Potts is Awesome Channel” for the past 78 waking hours, I’d probably be ready to strangle myself about now. Still, shows like America’s Worst Driver underscore how reliably shallow and brainless the Travel Channel has been since I started watching it nearly five days ago.

Back in the 1990s, when television was thought to have a much greater influence on Americans’ lives than it does now, media critic Mark Crispin Miller noted that part of TV’s appeal lies in its very vacuousness. “We watch TV because we know it is stupid,” he wrote, “and we enjoy the feeling of superiority it provides.” This in mind, much of what I’ve said in the past five days is inseparable from my own, faintly snobby assumptions of what the Travel Channel should be in the first place. As someone who’s been fortunate enough to wander the world on the cheap for much of the past 15 years, I love travel best when it’s slow, immersive, global in scope, and laced with ambiguity — qualities that don’t always lend themselves to the attention-span-driven demands of commercial television. Indeed, to obsess too much on the shortcomings of the Travel Channel would be (to paraphrase the Buddha) akin to complaining that a banana tree won’t bear mangoes.

In a way, what I’ve been doing here all week is a rather quaint exercise. Part of the reason I don’t own a television is that one doesn’t really need to anymore. If I’m really interested in seeing a given TV show I can usually stream it on my laptop — and some of the best new video content, travel or otherwise, is made by amateurs and uploaded to sites like YouTube. One of the most jarring aspects of watching a traditional TV channel all week has been sitting through the ads — something I don’t have to endure when I have the option of checking headlines or multitasking emails in another browser tab. Thus, the glut of advertisements I’ve seen on the Travel Channel (31 per hour on average, according to my notes) makes cable television feel like a throwback to another era. Were it not for the wearying repetition, these earnest little come-ons for Kool Aid and Meow Mix and Kraft Singles would feel charmingly nostalgic.

Even after the appearance of the giant robotic dinosaur, I’m at a loss for what else I might say about America’s Worst Driver. I stay up until the credits roll at midnight, then end my Travel Channel marathon with an unceremonious thumb to the remote control.

WHAT TRAVEL TV COULD ONE DAY BECOME (BUT PROBABLY WON’T)

Day 6, Hour 80 (plus 3): 11:11am. A few hours before I fly out of Las Vegas, I find myself flipping through the TV channels while I wait for the airport shuttle. Sick as I am of the Travel Channel, I’m soon engrossed in a No Reservations rerun that investigates the cuisine (and, by proxy, the history, culture, and economics) of the Texas-Mexico border area.

If there were an ideal indicator of what the Travel Channel could one day become, it would be Anthony Bourdain’s refusal to devolve into a telegenic caricature. The No Reservations host is consistently hip and insightful and funny — but what makes his show stand out is that he’s not afraid to express his real opinion about things. It’s astonishing how seldom this happens on travel shows. The Travel Channel sheepishly alludes to this in its Bourdain promo teasers, suggesting that there’s an upbeat, camera-friendly “Good Tony,” who likes what he eats and sees, and a snarky, irritable “Bad Tony,” who drinks too much, despises culinary clichés, and ridicules his producers. In other words, Bourdain has the temerity to express a point of view that goes beyond the tidy, self-contained dictates of television.

In the Texas-Mexico border episode, for example, Bourdain refuses to buy into stereotypes — pointing out how American perceptions of Mexican border towns are “more a reflection of our own darker, wilder sides than a true reflection of Mexico.” His take on Mexican drug culture is equally pointed: “With all the attention Mexico’s drug cartels have gotten satisfying America’s bottomless hunger for illegal drugs,” he says, “you might be surprised to find there’s nearly as much business catering to grandma’s bladder-control problem or grandpa’s erectile dysfunction.” As he travels the border region, eating street-food tacos in Mexico and chicken-fried steak in Texas, Bourdain variously pokes fun at his cameraman, debunks the notion that nachos are authentically Mexican, alludes to George Orwell, buys a stash of Demerol, and meets a Veracruz-born chef who prepares the finest Japanese cuisine in Laredo.

In hosting a show so stubbornly wedded to his unique sensibilities, Bourdain hints at a universally relevant notion: that travel — if one can view it as more than a consumer act — has a way of revealing a world more complicated and exasperating and unexpectedly delightful than one could ever imagine sitting at home.

The ironic implication here, of course, is that one can’t experience this richer world without first turning off the television.

Twenty-three hotel floors above downtown Las Vegas, I brandish the remote and do just that.

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

Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 4

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

AMERICA: IT’S WHERE FAT PEOPLE ARE MADE

Day 4, Hour 50: 9:25 am. The narrator of a show called Breakfast Paradise has just announced that he’s found a restaurant that will indulge my “deepest cereal fantasies.” An hour ago, at a Texas barbecue joint, the same narrator suggested that I would “need a shower after plowing through a mountain of mouthwatering meat.” This voice-over specialist, who according to the credits is a guy named Mason Pettit, narrates most of the Travel Channel‘s non-hosted shows. All of his lines — be they about cheeseburgers or deep-fried candy bars — take on the same breathless, self-excited cadences that commercials use when trying to convince football fans that drinking light beer makes them more attractive to beautiful women.

Curious to know how much more food programming I’ll have to endure over the next two days, I break one of my self-isolation ground rules: I crack open my laptop, pay the hotel’s $9.95 Internet access fee, and check the Travel Channel’s broadcast schedule online. Here, I discover that — in the 31 hours of television I have left to watch — 6 hours are devoted to theme parks (Extreme Terror Rides, Extreme Water Parks), 2 hours are slated for a reality game-show (America’s Worst Driver), and a whopping 23 hours are given over to binge-eating or junk food (Man v. Food, Chowdown Countdown, etc). None of these shows suggest that travel might involve non-consumer experiences, and none of them appear to stray beyond the borders of the United States. Even shows that imply international scope are weirdly agoraphobic: Yesterday, a show called World’s Best Megastructures ignored the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China, electing instead to focus on such engineering feats as the New Orleans Superdome and the Mall of America.I wonder how an Asian or a European might perceive this kind of programming. In previous decades, the global popularity of TV shows like Gunsmoke, Dallas, and Baywatch lent a breezy sense of glamour and intrigue to the notion of American identity. The Travel Channel, on the other hand, seems to suggest that 21st-century Americans are noisy, incurious half-wits who spend most of their time riding roller coasters and gobbling down oversized portions of greasy food.

THE PRO WRESTLING OF CULINARY RIVALRY

Day 4, Hour 51: 10:41 pm. I’m trying to think of a way to describe the sensation I get while watching a series called Food Wars. The best analogy I’ve come up with is “time travel”: I feel like it’s 1991, and the writers of The Simpsons have dreamed up a farcical future where life’s most banal diversions have been transformed into idiotic game shows.

At its most basic level, Food Wars doesn’t seem like an inadvertent parody. The program explores how a given dish (hot wings, Italian beef, cheese-steak) has evolved into an authentic expression of culinary life in an urban community. Each episode examines local restaurant rivalries (Al’s Beef v. Mr. Beef in Chicago; Duff’s v. Anchor Bar in Buffalo), and uses blindfolded taste-tests to determine which joint serves the best meals.

Unfortunately, the show’s producers have infused these civic food rivalries with a sense of hyperbole and fake enthusiasm usually reserved for professional wrestling matches. Each Food Wars episode features awkwardly staged sequences where supporters of rival restaurants march through the streets waving homemade banners and screaming insults at each other; other segments feature breathless talk of “top-secret” recipes, and commercial-break cliffhangers promising “shocking” conclusions. The host, a petite, high-strung brunette named Camille Ford, spends a good portion of each episode pumping her fist in the air and yelling her lines over crowd noise. Dramatic music accompanies the final segment, as portly white folks masticate chicken wings or beef sandwiches in slow-motion close-up, their chins smeared in hot sauce, their teeth slicked with animal fat.

According to the schedule, Food Wars: Buffalo and Food Wars: Chicago will be rebroadcast twice more today — which means I have until bedtime to come up with a plausible theory for how shows like this end up on the Travel Channel.

TV MARATHONER GETS STUFFED

Day 4, Hour 60: 7:32 pm. Midway through the evening showing of Food Wars I lose my patience and head downstairs to wander the gaudy, mazelike corridors of the Plaza Hotel casino. I’ve been living on bottled water, baby carrots, and trail-mix all week, so I’ve decided to splurge on a meal at the Plaza’s buffet restaurant, which is, appropriately, called “Stuffed.”

Like most thrift-conscious Middle Americans, I cannot discipline myself in all-you-can-eat environments. After several platefuls of lukewarm food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lasagna), I stumble back to my room, unbuckle my belt, and turn on an episode of what turns out to be Extreme Pig Outs. Watching this show on an overfull stomach is kind of like barricading oneself into a broom closet to watch a show about claustrophobia. Nauseated, I fetch the remote, and — for the first time in more than 60 waking hours — change the station.

As I surf through the channels, I’m stunned by how much travel programming I find outside of the Travel Channel. VH1′s Price of Beauty shows Jessica Simpson interacting with Indians in Bombay; the Discovery Channel’s Man v. Wild shows Bear Grylls trekking through the Moroccan Sahara. An Animal Channel program examines the lives of Africans who live on an elephant preserve; a History Channel show depicts Mexican migrant workers embarking on a less-than-romantic sojourn through California’s produce fields.

I flip my way through the channels, spotting more depictions of the non-American world in one hour than I’ve seen in four days of watching the Travel Channel.

WHY DOESN’T THE TRAVEL CHANNEL TRAVEL?

Day 4, Hour 64: 11:53 pm. After three hours of channel surfing, I’ve noticed that my lizard-brain subconscious is intrinsically drawn to flashy, noisy, high-energy shows. The sight of an exploding car, for instance, sucks me into 20 minutes of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters; the spectacle of a soccer riot inspires me to watch two segments of MSNBC’s Caught on Camera. At one point I’m flipping through channels when I’m entranced by a mob of frumpy Americans chanting in unison inside of a restaurant. I watch, intrigued, for ten full beats before I realize that the mob’s attention is focused on three people eating hot wings.

I have, it appears, been suckered into another rerun of Food Wars.

Pay close attention to the end-credits of Food Wars, and you’ll see that it’s created by the same production company that found ratings success with Man v. Food. These two programs are emblematic of what appears to be the Travel Channel’s status quo: Both shows are less about travel than junk food; both are saturated with overstatement and phony energy; both are hosted by loud, charismatic actors whose talents lie less in culinary insight than standard-issue enthusiasm (sample comment: “I’m a little star-struck by this food’s awesomeness!”). In addition to being able to lure in random channel surfers (including me) with such off-kilter energy, both Food Wars and Man v. Food use a contrived sense of competition to tease out that old Aristotelian dramatic question: “How will this all turn out?” Somehow, this keeps enough folks watching to make these shows popular.

Fifty years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin noted that mass media is less about its content than its audience. “The mass, in our world of mass media, is the target and not the arrow,” he wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. “It is the ear and not the voice. The mass is what others aim to reach.” As I watch Food Wars for the third time today, I sense that the Travel Channel has no guiding philosophy beyond raw ratings numbers. Were producers able to attract a sizeable audience for, say, Macramé Wars, or Man v. Hygiene, I’m certain the Travel Channel would make room on its schedule.

I have 16 waking hours left in my television marathon, and it feels like the whimsical travel metaphors that inspired this experiment have yet to find much traction: I may as well be watching a network called the “TV Channel.”

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