Seven ways to explore the world without leaving home

Travel can be an escape – a chance to get away from the stress of our daily lives – but it can also be much more. Travel is about exploring a destination (new or familiar), understanding and connecting with the local culture, and seeing how people in a different place live.

Even more than the physical act of moving to a new place, traveling is about discovery, and just because you can’t get away from home at a particular time doesn’t mean you can’t still embrace that philosophy of adventure. Here are seven ways to “travel” without leaving your hometown.
Movies can take us to other worlds – real or imagined, of this Earth or not. Next time you are suffering from serious wanderlust, pick up a movie set in a foreign land. Explore the sweeping grasslands of Kenya with Out of Africa, ride the back roads of South America with Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, wander the chaotic streets of Tokyo through Lost in Translation, or explore India by train on The Darjeeling Limited.
Public transportation roulette
Travel is all about exploring a foreign place. For most of us, that doesn’t mean we need to venture far to discover a place that is new to us. I’ve lived in Chicago for three years, but there are still pockets of the city I’ve yet to step foot on. It’s easy to fall into a routine and only visit the same reliable places in your hometown, but this can lead to a feeling of boredom. Spice up your daily life by seeking out new places in your own city.

If you live somewhere with a good train or bus system, pick a weekend to play what I like to call “public transportation roulette.” In Chicago, I hop on one of the El lines and get off at a stop I’ve never visited before. Then I spend the afternoon checking out the area’s restaurants and shops. If your city has an ethnic enclave, like a Chinatown or Greektown, spending an evening wandering the streets there can also feel like a mini cultural journey.

Just like movies, books can take us places (see, that poster in the Library didn’t lie!). Whether you prefer to read creative nonfiction set in a specific place or places – explore the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese with J. Maarten Troust in Lost on Planet China, ride the rails through Asia with Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar, or return to the Paris of the 1920’s in Earnest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – or to read more about the idea of wandering (try The Little Price by Antoine de Saint Exupery), books can help keep us in a traveling state of mind.

For a whirlwind tour of the world, try an anthology like the Best American Travel Writing series. Or for a mini shot of travel inspiration, I keep a copy of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: A Rough Guide to the World on my coffee table and flip through it often.

When I start to get itchy feet but know that I don’t have a trip scheduled for a few weeks, I start renting all my favorite travel shows. I explore the world through food with Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations, or laugh along with Ian Wright and the Globe Trekker crew as I learn about destinations I plan on visiting in the future.

Food and drink
Traveling through my taste buds is one of my favorite ways to “virtually” experience a destination. In most countries I visit, I try to schedule a cooking class to learn to make at least one local dish. When I get home, I can then make that meal any time I am feeling nostalgic for the country. I can’t make fresh pasta without being transported to my honeymoon in Tuscany. Empanadas and some Malbec wine take me back to Buenos Aires, and fresh paella recalls my days in Barcelona.

Even if you didn’t learn to make a special dish while you were in a country, you can try to recreate memorable meals at home, or just pick a local specialty from a country you’d like to visit, and make it with the help of a recipe found online. If you can’t cook more than a piece of toast, no worries – just head to your local ethnic restaurant. You might not be fooled into thinking you are really in Ethiopia as you spoon up stewed meats with spongy injera bread, but a little taste of a foreign country might satiate you until your next trip.

Theme nights
Remember that episode of the Gilmore Girls when, after Rory’s big trip to Asia was cancelled, Lorelei turned the living room into a tour of the continent with food and decorations from various Asian countries? Just like that, you can host a theme night to celebrate a destination you’ve been to or are planning a trip to. Heading to Japan? Host a Japanese night, complete with sake, anime movies, sushi and geisha costumes. If you have friends of various ethnicities, take turns hosting and ask each person to tell a story about their culture’s traditions.

Cultural centers and events
A large part of traveling is learning about another culture, and while nothing can really substitute for the experience of being there, a trip to a local cultural center can help you explore the history and traditions of a culture in your local area. Fore example, in Chicago, the Irish American Heritage Center hosts traditional Irish music at the onsite pub. When I sit there and drink a Guinness, I know I’m still in the US, but if I close my eyes and listen to the the proliferation of Irish accents around me, I almost feel like I’m back in Dublin.

Cultural festivals, which often feature food, music, and art from the home country, are another festive way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture.

I Survived a Japanese Game Show: Thumbs up

Yesterday, I wondered if ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show would be really awful or very funny. I had some concern that there would be cultural insensitivity that would make for very bad TV. My teenage daughter, who I corralled to watch with me, and I laughed and laughed.

Hollywood got it right.

Whoever thought of this show likes people and knows something about what it feels like to be thrust into an unfamiliar environment, but wanting to stay open to the experience. This was like Lost In Translation meets The Amazing Race, Average Joe and the game show, Beat the Clock.

Because the cast had no idea what kind of show they had signed up for when they arrived from their various homes across the U.S., even the quick trip from the domestic to the international terminal at LAX in Los Angeles was funny.

“Huh? Say what?” they wondered after the short hop from one building to the other.

“You’re going to Japan,” said host/interpreter Tony Sano.

“Great!” ” Wonderful! ” was shouted out in a flurry of excitement. Most had never been out of the U.S.

After arriving in Tokyo, Ben Hughes, age 44, and the official handler of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania summed up the feeling, “I was sitting on a couch in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and now, I’m in Japan.”

After briefly establishing Tokyo as a bustling, bright lights, big city kind of place, contestants were taken from the busiest intersection in the world across Rainbow Bridge to their home away from home –Kansai House run by Mamasan.

Mamasan, a stout Japanese woman has the role in the show of keeping these folks in line and teaching them a bit about Japanese culture. ” No shoes in the house,” she barked. “Now, you go to bed.”

The sake, the traditional style Japanese beds and the remote control toilet were points of interest before shut eye.

Here are a few of the reactions:

  • Of the sake, “It’s lighter than a wine cooler.”
  • Of the beds, “I don’t know if I want to sleep on the floor,”
  • And of the toilet, “Tokyo is way far advanced than the United States of America.”

The next morning, still without a clue about the purpose of this Japan jaunt, the contestants were taken to Toho Studio where Sano told them, “Many classic Japanese films are made here.”

All nodded and murmured in their what I imagined was a jet-lagged, “I don’t know why this is important really since I’ve never seen a Japanese classic film, but I’m happy to be here anyway” sound.

Then the fun really began. The intro to the game show was perfect.

As they trotted through a door while Sano told them that this was where one of the most popular game shows was filmed, one of them said, “It’s completely pitch black.”

Sano said, “The game show starts right now,” and the lights came on.

Surprise! There they were in the middle of the studio floor. “Hello, America! Welcome to Japan!” shouts out game show host, Rome Kanda. The Japanese audience on both sides goes wild.

The Americans are up for anything, even though they have an inkling that they are in the middle of a cross-cultural joke.

The look on their faces reminded me of how my Peace Corps group and I must have looked the day we were whisked from our Western-style training site to live in an African village only three days after arriving in the country. Totally unprepared, but willing to give it a go.

“This is Majide,” Kanda, explains. “It means you got to be crazy.” For the chance to win $250,000 the contestants are willing to be crazy.

“Wave to the crowd,” says Kanda.

The contestants wave.

“Wow, they do whatever I tell them,” says Kanda in Japanese to the Japanese audience, who laughs and continues to stomp, beat on drums, generally make excited audience sounds, and shout out “Majide” whenever Kanda gives the cue. This is a non-menacing audience, though, and the impression is they are rooting for the Americans to do well.

Gamely, and good-natured, the contestants divide up into two teams: the yellow penguins and the green monkeys.

The first game is called, “Conveyor Restaurant.”

In a nutshell: One person from the team is the eater. The other members have a helmet like contraption on their heads that holds a mochi, a sticky rice ball cake. Running on a treadmill, they make it to the spot where the eater is. The eater, without using his hands, has to lean over, grab the mochi with his mouth and eat it all up while the treadmill runner drops to the treadmill and is briskly dumped into a vat of flour.

The team that downs the most sticky rice balls in four minutes wins. As the game continues the treadmill goes faster. It was a hoot.

“There’s no cheating and no hanky panky,” warns Kanda.

“Good fall,” says a member of the yellow penguins who are watching from the green room. Zip goes a green monkey into the flour.

Later, covered from head to toe in flour, Ben says, “I hate treadmills,” but runs his heart out anyway.

“The mochi ball was so gooey I couldn’t chew it and swallow it,” said Donnell Pitman, age 32, and a real estate developer from Illinois who was the green team’s eater.

Sticky or not, he downed 10 of those babies. Which was enough to win the game. The yellow team only managed nine, even though 28 year-old, Andrew Kelly-Hayes, a radio sales consultant from Massachusetts ate like a champ.

“I don’t even know what that was. It was like putty,” he said later.

Once, while Andrew was chewing away, Kanda said in Japanese, “Look at that chubby face go to work, ” making the audience chortle with delight.

Fellow teammate, Darcy Sletager, a single mom and photo editor from Sandpoint, Idaho couldn’t stay on her feet long enough to deliver one mochi ball which caused the yellow team to lose.

“Darcy looked like a crash test dummy,” lamented Justin Wood, a financial representative from Alabama, and another yellow penguin.

For losing, the yellow penguins got to dress up like rickshaw drivers the next day to haul amenable Japanese people around.

For their win, the green monkeys scored a helicopter tour of Tokyo.

Each of these segments helped fill out the hour time slot of “How I Survived a Japanese game show,” but also established the personalities of the players. Cathy Nardone, age 21, for example, was described as a “Staten Island Diva.”

After the rickshaw experience, one of them said what is a mantra that ensures pleasant travel, “We took a bad situation and made it pretty cool.”

Still one of them was to be eliminated. The team chose Darcy because of her lack of “Conveyor Restaurant’ performance and Bilenda Madison, to compete in the game “Big Bugs Splat on Windshield.”

Dressed like bugs, the two took turns running towards a trampoline that they jumped on which hurled them at a mock-up of a car windshield with targets. The one who deposited green goo on the windshield closer to the targets got the most points.

“Are you exciting? ” Kanda asked Darcy. “Yes, I’m exciting, ” she said before running towards her last jump. She was exciting, but came one point short of winning.

At this point, guys in black suits ran into the studio, and after dancing around winner Bilenda, picked up Darcy carrying her out of the building.

The show ended with Darcy walking out the studio gate still dressed in her costume, her bug wings bouncing and her antennas swaying ever so slightly.

Yep, I was impressed. This is a good-natured show, at least so far. It teaches a bit about Japan, generates fun–perfect for the summer, and shows just how willing Americans are to put on a game face when they have to, and liking it.

I’m tuning in next week.

*Photos are from the “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” Web site.