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Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 1
Twenty-three hotel floors above the gritty neon splendor of downtown Las Vegas, I am nearing the end of a bewildering travel experiment: For the past five days, I have been watching the Travel Channel for the entirety of my waking hours, without ever changing the station or (save a few key occasions) leaving my hotel room.
My goal has been to create an intensive, vicarious televisual adventure -- to glean five days' worth of travel experiences from the glowing parameters of a single TV set and figure out what the Travel Channel might be saying about how one should see the world.
In the 77 hours since my experiment began, I have witnessed many wonders. I have, for example, seen three grown men shriek like schoolgirls while locked overnight inside a dubiously haunted English inn. I have learned that ants in the Ecuadorian Amazon taste like lemons, that Gulf Coast raccoons taste like turkey, and that Andean guinea pigs taste like roast pork shoulder. I have learned that nachos are not authentic Mexican food, and that the Japanese have invented a toilet that can both wash and blow-dry your ass. I have seen two separate shows that sing the praises of deep-fried Twinkies, and I've heard the phrase "like a party in your mouth" used to describe the culinary merits of three separate food products. I have seen a restaurant full of Americans cheer like hockey fans while watching two guys devour a 10-pound pizza in less than an hour.
I have also watched commercials -- more than 2000 of them in the course of five days. According to the tally marks in my notebook, I have been invited to visit Jamaica 16 times, been warned 51 times that my existing health insurance might not be adequate for my retirement needs, and thrice been asked to ponder how Cheez-It is able to bake so much cheesy goodness into such small bites.
I have left my hotel three times in the past five days, and been nearly robbed once.
In exactly 7 minutes (once the guy who ate the 10-pound pizza finishes eating a 4.5-pound steak), my TV marathon will culminate with two back-to-back episodes of a show called America's Worst Driver, which -- like many shows on the Travel Channel -- doesn't appear to be about travel.
Brandishing my notebook, I stare at the screen with a fatigued sense of resolve and ponder the events that brought me to this moment.
WHY I CAME TO VEGAS TO WATCH TV FOR A WEEK
Day 1, Hour 2: 10:37 am. I am currently watching a show called Food Fun Factories. Its tagline is "hit the road and put your taste buds to the test," which (given the content of the show) seems to infer that you should plan your vacations around the manufacture of junk food. On the screen, a man dressed as a jellybean is hugging a small child at a Fairfield, California, candy factory.
Since I don't own a TV, I am viewing the action on a 24-inch RCA that sits atop a cream-colored cabinet in Plaza Hotel suite 2333, Las Vegas, Nevada. At $22 a night, it was cheaper to fly to Vegas for the week than it was to rent a comparable hotel room 10 miles from my Midwestern home. My room smells faintly of cigarettes and features a king-sized bed, late-'80s-style muted beige neo-Greco décor, and a synthetic potted plant that probably gets taken outside and hosed down once a year. The casino auditorium downstairs advertises a nightly extravaganza called "The Rat Pack is Back."
I've been intrigued with the Travel Channel ever since I started making my living as a travel writer twelve years ago. Sometimes I'll catch snippets of its programs when I'm staying in American hotels, and in recent years I've occasionally appeared on the network as a talking-head commentator (primarily on a pair of countdown clip-shows about international destinations). These fleeting Travel Channel appearances haven't done much to deepen my understanding of the network (they were filmed by an independent production company), but they have attracted more attention from long-lost friends and family members than all of my books and travel articles combined.
Indeed, the Travel Channel has built up a significant viewing audience since its inception in 1987, a truth borne out by its $975 million valuation when the Scripps media conglomerate bought a controlling stake in the network one year ago. Given this popularity, I've begun to wonder what kind of message the Travel Channel is sending.
Where do we go when we watch travel television? Who do we meet? What do we learn? Since the word television literally means "seeing far," I've decided to tune in for five full days and check out the view.
For the sake of discipline and full immersion, I have resolved not to use my cell phone or the Internet during my experiment. A small plastic cooler holds enough food and drink to last me the week. The only information I'll take in for the next 78 hours will come courtesy of the Travel Channel.
On the TV screen, the candy factory footage cuts away to a hearing-aid commercial hosted by the guy who played Bobby Ewing on Dallas.
Day 1, Hour 6: 2:08 pm. By mid-afternoon the Travel Channel has shuttled me to Alaska, where Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern is dipping a chunk of bowhead whale-flesh into a jar of fermented blubber-oil.
I'm nearing the end of a midday stretch of programming that has featured three of the most popular personalities on the Travel Channel. Zimmern is a jovial, bald, pot-bellied cook from Minneapolis who travels around the world sampling dishes like boiled llama brains and fried deer genitals. Samantha Brown, who appeared at noon on Passport to Great Weekends, is an extroverted everywoman who takes brief, activity-filled trips to popular vacation destinations. Anthony Bourdain, whose show No Reservations aired an hour ago, is a grizzled, articulate, and coolly glamorous chef who travels the world using food as a window into culture.
I'll talk more about each host's respective show as the week progresses, but for now I think I've learned enough to create a drinking game that will ensure Travel Channel viewers get nice and buzzed by the end of a given episode. Assuming one has a bottle of whiskey on hand, it goes like this:
- Bizarre Foods: Do a shot every time Andrew Zimmern nibbles on a morsel of, say, pickled gerbil rectum and stares off into the middle distance for a moment before comparing the taste to pork, beef, chicken or fish.
- Passport to Great Weekends: Do a shot every time Samantha Brown emits a monosyllabic expression of enthusiasm, such as "Yay!" "Ooh!" "Aah!" "Wow!" or "Woo!"
- No Reservations: Do a shot every time Anthony Bourdain does a shot.
Day 1, Hour 13: 9:30 pm. Thirteen hours in, and I've just begun my fourth consecutive episode of a show called Man v. Food, which is hosted by Adam Richman, an affable and hyperactive bloke who seems to be channeling his TV persona through the hybrid aura of Jay Leno, late-period Elvis, and Cookie Monster.
The premise of Man v. Food is that Richman travels to a major American city and declares his intention to eat an insanely large food item -- say, a 30-pound sloppy joe -- in one sitting. For the next 20 or so minutes, Richman visits other popular eateries in his destination city, wolfing down meals in normal-sized portions while continually alluding to the gastronomical challenges presented by the 30-pound sloppy joe. At the end of the episode Richman strides into a restaurant, strips naked, rolls on a condom, and makes wild, passionate love to the 30-pound sloppy joe while a crowd of rowdy locals cheers him on.
Actually, I'm just joking. The host of Man v. Food never technically has sexual intercourse with the food. But if you were required to take a shot of whiskey every time Adam Richman bites into a hot-wing or a cheese-steak and rolls his eyes back with an orgasmic shudder, you would be hammered inside of a half-hour.
Day 1, Hour 16 (plus 2): 3:13 am. I wake up disoriented, the TV blaring some wee-hours infomercial about mortgage relief (the Travel Channel only broadcasts original content for 16 hours each day; the rest is given over to paid programming).
I grab my cell phone and squint at the time. Despite the fact that I spent most of the day sitting down, I nodded off from bone-deep exhaustion less than five minutes into the 11:00 pm rerun of Extreme Fast Food.
Watching a screen all day without having the option to change the channel has been an unexpectedly taxing endeavor: My limbs ache and my eyes burn as I get up to turn off the TV for the night. I have 64 waking hours left in my Travel Channel marathon.
[Stay tuned for the continuation of Rolf Potts' series Around the World in 80 Hours tomorrow]
[flickr image via Erin Drewitz]