It sounded like a truly terrible idea from the get-go — Solicit video submissions from absolute strangers, pick one of them, and then put myself into said stranger\’s hands for a week, someplace I\’ve never been. I hadn\’t been paying attention when the network suggested it, and I looked at the prospect as a far away, slow moving train that would hopefully never arrive and figured that in any case, it could be finessed. If I actually had to go somewhere with a fan, I\’d pick someplace close and easy.
But the train was here, now. A decision had to be made. And Buffalo was looking like a mighty strong contender. Out of thousands of often terrifying submissions, dark figures muttering at the camera from blood-freckled cellar rumpus rooms, there were actually a few really good ones. Nelson Starr\’s admirably deranged ode to Buffalo was a snowy masterpiece — if limited in its culinary offerings. It had the advantage of being close. And that it kind of \”rawked\”.
Augusto Elefanio\’s enthusiastic plea to take him along to the Philippines, so that he could reconnect with his roots, was also excellent and heartfelt and might get the masses of Filipinos who\’ve been (understandably) hectoring me (\”Why haven\’t you been to my country yet?\”) finally, off my back.
Eric Rivera suggested Thailand — from a kick-boxer\’s perspective, in an articulate, compassionate video presenting a place that was already familiar to me and well known for its outrageously varied and delicious cuisine.
And then there was Danya Alhamrani\’s earnest, professional looking tape urging me to join her in Saudi Arabia — just about the last place I would ever have considered going.Unfortunately, for my plans to basically rig this whole, shameful project, to pick some marginally comprehensible, and relatively unthreatening fan and spend a few days shooting footage of me comically avoiding the contest winner — in like, Bermuda, or Montauk, Danya\’s video was just so damn good. And Saudi Arabia seemed like such a difficult, even foolish option.
I mean, let\’s face it, how much fun could it be? Most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. They\’re mostly pretty fundamentalist Muslims! Women cover themselves head-to-toe in black. The men wear head dress and white floor length, skirty things! It\’s hot –really hot. There\’s NO BEER!! If any destination was predestined to suck, this was it.
But Danya Alhamrani is an extraordinary woman. And the fact that during finalist interviews, she pretty much challenged me to visit her country and still think ill of it, was well, pretty persuasive. She touched that obstinate streak of contrariness in me that little voice that\’s always telling me that if I\’m sure of a thing — and everybody agrees with me — then I\’m probably wrong.
And it\’s nice being wrong. One of the delights of travel is finding, again and again that all your preconceptions, all the conventional wisdom, everything you thought for sure was right — is, in fact, wrong — or at least, far from a complete picture. Saudi Arabia, it turned out, was fun. Really!
I urge you to take a look at producer Amy Teuteberg\’s excellent and provocative crew blog. There\’s not much I can add to that (and what you see in the show) — except to lavish even more praise on the remarkable Danya, her friends and family. It\’s only right, I think, that a tough, independent Western woman\’s perspective should be most useful and relevant when talking about what the experience was like. It is women, after all, who are denied the right to drive, who must cover themselves in public. So, wheel over to the Crew Blog as soon as you can.
I can only tell you that standard male dress in the Kingdom, the \”thobe\”, felt surprisingly … liberating. Walking through my hotel lobby, there was a strange relief, a comfort in looking exactly like everybody else. And superb testicular ventilation.
And if there was one really big surprise, it\’s that so many Saudis we met had a sense of humor. This is not what you\’d expect after watching \”60 Minutes\” or \”Dateline\” or various hard news descriptions of life in the Kingdom. Fact is we met a lot of funny, good natured, very, very generous people over there. They actually had the capacity to laugh at themselves. They were all too aware of how they look to outsiders. They watch \”Friends\” and \”Oprah\” and \”American Idol\”.
Many, many of them were educated abroad. They were scrupulously devout in their faith without being humorless. It was a flawlessly organized and executed shoot — thanks to newcomer producer Amy, the magnificent Danya, and Dania and many friends — and in fact, a rollicking good — if alcohol free — time. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by the show.
As a final note, we will, on some snowy winter day, shoot at least part of a show in Buffalo. And Nelson Starr shall surely be our guide. Bangkok is on the horizon for the coming season. And we would be remiss if we did not have Eric Rivera, with his unique perspective and unusual access along for the ride. Plus, my wife wants to take a week or two in mui tai camp there. And just as the Phillipines are long overdue for a show, Augusto Elefanio deserves to have his dreams come true.
So with luck, everybody, as they say, is a winner.