Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World, travel TV worth watching

After last Tuesday’s debut of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World, Travel Channel’s expansion of Andrew Zimmern’s scope past bizarre food, I pronounced the first episode that highlighted Cuba–and the second one that was an unusual travel though Belize–a smart and successful call.

Perhaps the new Travel Channel executives will pay attention to Aaron’s post last month asking them to concentrate on travel shows that give a sense of place and not drivel, i.e, shows where the place is overshadowed by the personalities or subjects that are not travel related. Hopefully, they realize that Zimmern’s Bizarre World is a travel show done right.

Sure, Zimmern is a travel personality, but he uses himself as the vehicle to unfold a story, but doesn’t become the story. He’s everyone who has ever had interesting and captivating encounters with other cultures.

Although Zimmern is a food kind of guy, his forte is people and culture–in that order. Food is merely part of the mix of what he finds captivating by his travels. That’s what I picked up about him last January when I met him at the AAA Great Vacations Expo in Columbus, and later observed him in front of a live audience. He’s a natural when it comes to meeting strangers and feeling comfortable–plus he’s a most gracious guest. What comes through on TV shines in person.

At the AAA travel show, Zimmern was the celebrity speaker, and unlike celebrities who are more interested in their own celebrity-hood, Zimmern seemed more interested in others experiences as he is his own. After he talked about what goes into the filming of Bizarre Foods, he pulled audience members up on stage with him to taste some of the bizarre foods of central Ohio. (Yes, there are a few. Head cheese, for example.) The result was a lively interplay with the people around him that bought out the best in the room. At the end of his talk, everyone was invited up for bizarre food tasting and Zimmern happily signed autographs. It was a lovefest between Zimmern and central Ohio

Zimmern’s treatment of Cuba, the first subject of Bizarre World, was as upbeat and interesting as his talk. This was not an examination of Cuba’s underbelly, but about its vibrancy and cultural heartbeat. Politics weren’t ignored, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were talked about for example, but dealt with in terms of how they’ve had an influence over Cubans cultural practices over the years.

As the hour progressed, Zimmern wove together details of several of Cuba’s distinctive qualities such as: vintage cars, the architecture, salsa dancing, the tobacco industry, Santeria religious rituals, and Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s honeymoon stay at the Hotel Nacional in the 1950s.

Of course there were bizarre foods–tree rat, to name one, but those details were woven into a fascinating mix. Zimmern’s signature talent of incorporating experts and ordinary people as the main highlights were present throughout. One might say, there is no one Zimmern doesn’t like and everyone has knowledge worth sharing.

With any cultural trait that might seem–frankly, bizarre–Zimmern’s idea is not to show just how bizarre the trait is, but how, in the scheme of place and culture, the trait is perfectly normal. For example, there’s a reason for having warm blood of a freshly killed chicken dripped over your head. This practice is important to Santeria. Hopefully, Zimmern’s curiosity about and respect of cultural differences are catching.

Unlike a polished canned show, where the outcome is thought of beforehand, and there’s a sense of a script with each shot, Zimmern’s method is to let the place and its people tell their own stories. He’s merely along for the ride and the experience like we are.

When he’s pulling conch shells from Belize’s pristine ocean waters, for example, we’re there too. The part where he collapses into the boat from exhaustion is left in. As Zimmern gets creeped out a bit going into a cave where the Mayas made human sacrifices to appease the rain god, the feeling is catching. However, in the storytelling, the idea is not to show how freaky the Mayas were, but what conditions and belief systems influenced their practices.

The Belize episode, particularly captured aspects of the culture that tourists may not notice or discover. As I watched, I thought about what sort of stories might be told about the U.S. Yep, there are definitely stories to tell. I”m curious to see which ones might be featured in later episodes.

Zimmern’s brand of travel provides a ride worth taking, particularly since it’s one that can result in the unexpected such as what happened last week in Cuba. The boat Zimmern was on towards the end of the episode broke down after it took him on a journey of catching and eating spiny lobster. As he bobbed in the sea awaiting rescue while the sun set, he reminded viewers that a perfect day can end up just like that. But, despite the setbacks, journeys are always worth it.