Intense National Geographic Series, ‘Locked Up Abroad,’ Documents Inept Travelers

muleLast week’s arrest of diaper-wearing cocaine smugglers at JFK proved more laughable than horrifying to those not directly involved. Drug busts are in the media so often, we rarely pay attention to them. They’re certainly not something I care about.

Yet, I’ve recently become obsessed with a National Geographic show called “Locked Up Abroad.” I don’t recall hearing about this harrowing documentary series when it first aired in 2007, but it caught my eye about a month ago, during a late-night Netflix bender. It’s now in its sixth season on the National Geographic Channel.

Each episode profiles one or two subjects, most of whom have been imprisoned in developing nations. While a few episodes detail hostage and other kidnapping situations (Warning: if you’re at all easily disturbed, please don’t watch … nightmares are almost guaranteed), most involve drug smuggling gone awry.

As a die-hard adventure traveler, I find “Locked Up Abroad” absorbing (that’s not an intentional diaper pun) because it’s a real-life dramatization of my worst fears. As a solo female wanderer, I can’t help but worry sometimes about kidnapping or becoming an inadvertent drug mule, no matter how self-aware I try to be. Many of the episodes on “Locked Up Abroad,” however, involve people with the intellect of dead hamsters, and it’s hard to feel much in the way of empathy, given their greed and gullibility.Still, it’s hard to resist a good prison story, especially when it involves South America or Bangladesh, and pasty, bespectacled English blokes or naive teenage girls from small-town Texas. The psychology behind why these people take such enormous risks, and how they manage to survive in inhospitable and downright inhumane conditions is fascinating.

Perhaps I’ve just watched “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Return to Paradise” one too many times, but I’ve often wondered how I’d fare in such a situation, and I hope I never have to find out. But documentaries like “Locked Up Abroad” are more than just sensationalism. They’re a window into our desperate, greedy, grubby little souls, as well as testimony to the will to survive.

For some reason, YouTube and National Geographic Channel video links are disabled or broken, so if you want to check out some footage, click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Svadilfari]

Reno’s ‘Cheese Truck’ Subject Of Quirky Documentary

“Reno, Nevada. The Biggest Little City in the World. Famous for our casinos, quick divorces, and legalized prostitution.”

So goes the opening narration to “The Cheese Truck,” a funny little documentary made by Jason Spencer of Storm Front Productions. The 26-minute film follows what amounts to a day in the life of GourMelt owners/drivers/cheese geeks Jessie and Haley, as they feed Reno’s hungry masses.

This gem of a film caught my attention for three reasons: I just flew in from Reno last night, after spending a week in Lake Tahoe visiting my brother and his family; I work in the cheese industry and did a book signing at Wedge, Reno’s new (only?) cheese shop, six days ago, and I couldn’t believe someone had made a movie about Reno’s on-trend food scene. Ouch.

“The Cheese Truck” may also gently poke fun, but its objective is to show viewers how much work goes into operating a food truck, as well as highlight Reno’s Renaissance. As my experience at Wedge also showed, there are a lot of fun things popping up in the Biggest Little City, especially the South Virginia Street Corridor neighborhood.

Look for more details on the second coming of Reno next week. I’ll tell you where to find a great bottle of wine, used combat boots, and handcrafted soppressata, amongst the tattoo parlors and crack houses.


US Government Denies Existence Of Mermaids


The U.S. National Ocean Service has released a statement confirming there is no scientific evidence for mermaids.

Interesting – I didn’t realize this was a subject of debate.

Apparently it wasn’t until Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet network ran a spoof documentary titled “Mermaids: The Body Found.” The channel’s own press release labels the show “science fiction.” This wasn’t enough for some viewers and according to the BBC, the National Ocean Service received a couple of inquiries about the fishy folk. To keep the public from reviving the superstitions of illiterate 19th century sailors, they made a public denial of something they never thought they’d have to deny.

When I read this I went through the predictable range of reactions. First I laughed, then I felt smugly superior, then I said, “Hey, I need to write this up for Gadling!” Then I did something I didn’t expect.

I got very, very afraid.

The public dialogue is awash with ridiculous assertions: Obama is a Muslim, the Moon landings were faked, all foreigners hate America, aliens regularly visit Earth to anally probe drunk farmers, etc., etc. Last week we even learned that some radical ultra-Orthodox Jews believe Hitler and top Zionists plotted to create the Holocaust so the Jews could create Israel. I’m still shaking my head over that one.

This level of ignorance is the result of many factors, but one cause rules over them all: a complete lack of context. Our schools teach us so little about the world that it’s easy to believe anything. Even the most basic knowledge of history, biology, evolution, oceanography, or folklore would guarantee that someone wouldn’t believe in mermaids, yet some people who went through the educational system of the most powerful country in the world lack this knowledge.It’s easy to laugh this off when it’s about mermaids. It’s not so funny when educated people seriously ask me if I had to pack a two-month supply of food to live in Ethiopia, or if Spain still has roving gangs of bandidos.

And if you think nobody is encouraging and profiting off this rampant ignorance, think again. The Republican Party of Texas included as part of its 2012 platform that it opposes the teaching of critical thinking in schools. And no, I’m not picking on the GOP. All politicians manipulate public ignorance to further their own ends. With elections coming up, it’s time to get educated.

This is why I love travel. It gets rid of my ignorance and teaches me that I’m ignorant about things I didn’t even know I was clueless about. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it changes unknown unknowns into known knowns. Example: five years ago I thought all of Somalia was in chaos – then I learned about Somaliland. OK, I thought, it’s safe for Somalis. I still assumed that it was too dangerous for foreigners. Then I actually went there and checked. Guess what? I’m still alive!

Knowledge is the great weapon of national freedom and personal liberation. If more people got out of their comfort zones and investigated their assumptions, maybe the American public would never have been convinced that one group of people were ignorant savages and needed to be pushed off their land, or another group of people were too stupid to take care of themselves and needed to be enslaved, or that another group of people had more loyalty to the old country than America and needed to be forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.

This ignorance of “the other” is still rampant today and can turn ugly at any time. It’s in our own best interest to get out of our comfort zones. We don’t have to leave the country to travel. Our comfort zone ends at the other side of the tracks.

Always question, always be suspicious of an authority’s motives, and keep exploring.

Photo of the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana, courtesy Flickr user vsmoothe. That woman is a human actress in a mermaid suit, in case you’re wondering. And yes, I totally want to go swimming with her.

“A Connecticut Hog Dog Tour” documentary airs July 2, kicks off National Hot Dog Month

connecticut hot dogsThere’s a month for everything in America, it seems, even if it’s cancer. But as a nation, we can really get behind hot dogs. We love hot dogs; we’re obsessed with them. That’s why the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (for reals) has declared July National Hot Dog Month. Who knew?

Such obsession with pre-formed meat products can only lead to one thing: a search for the ultimate weiner. Filmmaker Mark Kotlinski took on the challenge and discovered that Connecticut is a veritable hot dog paradise. In his film, “A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour,” Kotlinski documents his road trip to some of Connecticut’s most interesting–and delicious–hot dog stands.

Whether steamed, grilled, or deep-fried, Connecticut’s got ‘dogs for days. Highlighting the history, house specialties, and local hot dog lore, “A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour” is Kotlinski’s tribute to an American favorite. In the film, he visits renown Connecticut hot dogs stands including:

Rawley’s Drive-In (Fairfield), for their famous bacon dog with “The Works”; Weiners on Water (East Haddam), a hot dog boat on the Connecticut River featuring chili cheese dogs with a view; Bobby’s Place (Old Lyme), located on the beach, for their monster dog; Capitol Lunch (New Britain) for a hot dog with the works and their famous meat sauce, and Top Dog Hot Dog (Portland), a hot dog-shaped trailer located on Route 66, to sample their spicy Cajun Dog.

Inspired by Kotlinski’s findings and in time for National Hot Dog Month, Connecticut will debut it’s very own, official Hot Dog Trail that maps out these hot dog hot spots (the state is already home to a Wine Trail, Ice Cream Trail, and Beer Trail…and hey–why is there no pizza trail leading to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven?). For Trails and tourism info, click here.

“A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour” will air on July 2, 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Documentary Channel (DOC).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Scout]

How to Succeed in a Hot Dog Eating Contest

Crucifixion nails found in Israel? Probably not.

Crucifixions, nail, Roman, Roman nailThere’s been a shocking archaeological discovery in Israel. Nails from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ have been found!

Well, no, probably not.

The claim comes from Israeli Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the Washington Post reports. Jacobovici has done several documentaries on Christian subjects and came across an archaeological report from 1990 mentioning the discovery of nails in the tomb of a man named Caiaphas. For those who know their Bible, this is the same name as the Jewish high priest who plotted to arrest Jesus and then gave him to the Romans. The name is right, the date of the tomb is right, so the nails must be those from the Crucifixion, right?

The Post quotes Jacobovici as saying, “There’s a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare.”

Actually neither of these statements is true. The Post quotes an Israeli archaeologist as saying that the inscriptions in the tomb aren’t clear as to the occupant’s identity, and I myself have seen Roman nails turn up in tombs. They were pretty common objects, after all.

The timing of this announcement just before Easter and just before Jacobovici’s next documentary comes out (titled “Nails of the Cross” to air Wednesday on the History Channel), adds to the suspicion that Jacobovici is fooling either himself or us.

There’s also the question of why a Jewish high priest would take the nails of someone who he thought was a false prophet to the grave with him, or even how he got them in the first place since it was Jesus’ family and followers who removed Jesus from the Cross.

In the view of this former archaeologist, this story is more of the usual sensationalism masking as science that fills so much of the media. A bit like the spurious discovery of Caligula’s tomb.

Never fear. There are plenty are saints’ relics in Rome, including enough nails for a dozen Crucifixions. Gadling’s own David Farley has even written a book about the Holy Foreskin, which you can also visit in Italy. Actually there’s more than one relic claiming to be the Holy Foreskin, but that’s another story. . .

[Image of Roman nails courtesy user Takkk via Wikimedia Commons. These are not the same nails that came from the tomb mentioned in this article.]