Being a travel show host must be one of the most enviable jobs in the world. To get to go somewhere one has never traveled, gladly discovering what’s beyond the increasingly homogenous experience of tourist traps, overcrowded beaches, and souvenir stores disguised as cultural attractions — and be paid for it. Indie filmmaker/photographer Toby Amies is one of the fortunate few; as a co-host with Julia Bradbury for Rough Guide, a new series shown on Discovery Travel & Living, they jaunt off to far-flung land-before-time places like Madagascar and Mozambique, hotspots of the exotic like Marrakech and Rio, as well as urban centers with burgeoning hipster scenes like Berlin and Tel Aviv.
We (the Southeast Asian press) caught up with the amiable Amies via conference call, and amidst the jangle of accents, an unidentifiable tapping noise coming from what I bet was Singapore, and the constant drop-offs from my side of the line (thanks, Globe) there emerged a rather likable fella, an astute, well-seasoned traveler who never loses his sense of wonder, his sense of irony, nor his healthy sense of fear at the onset of something new and possibly life-threatening. He also never seems to lose his hat. Being British, he talks like he’s taking a rambling walk through a country garden, stopping here and there to pick up and smell a flower. In a few decades he might resemble one of those crotchety and vague old men who speak to cats, but right now he’s absolutely charming, and if there was any whiter-than-white English person I’d like to see on TV samba-ing in the middle of a favela, it would be him.
PHILIPPINE STAR: It looks like you’re up for almost anything. In Mexico, you participated in the lucha libre (Mexican wrestling with masks). What was that like?
TOBY AMIES: I’ve always had a kitsch interest in lucha libre. I always thought it was largely show business, but the people involved in it are very, very big, and very, very strong. It’s total entertainment and there’s no pain involved, but one of the guys slapped me and he did slap me really quite hard. I just have this really annoying rule that I’ve given myself — if I can smell any kind of irrational, or even rational, fear in myself, there’s this switch that goes off in my head that says, “Okay, you’ve got to do that.” That way I’ll keep learning and expanding my universe, but do stupid things as well.
What makes Rough Guide different from the run-of-the-mill travel programs?
I hope it’s because of the immersive element. Rough Guide is best when the camera and I are moving along at some sort of speed and I directly communicate what it’s like to be there at that time. It’s not quite guerrilla TV-making, but it’s made in such a way that we can respond to the environment very quickly. There’s a particular kind of honesty, also a fluidity, which makes for a more interesting viewing experience than other programs, which are a bit more scripted or formal.
What was it like going on a favela tour in Rio? Was there an element of exploitation, or was it something that was good for the community?
Good question. Which, in my experience, is generally what people say to give themselves time to think about the difficult question they’ve just been asked… I certainly didn’t feel it was exploitative or dangerous. Any way in which the privileged can meet the underprivileged where there’s some level of equality involved is, I think, a good thing. It was extraordinary to see how well organized something which is presented as a chaotic slum was. When you learn about the favelas you learn about the crime, the disease, the poverty, the gangs. It was surprising how functional a community it was. I wouldn’t describe it as an ideal piece of eco-tourism, but I didn’t feel like we were Victorians poking around in the slums. The best thing we did in that context was when we visited the samba school rehearsal, because it put you right in the heart of the community, which included rich people and poor people.
Were there any moments that actually changed your view of life?
Yes. One of the advantages of being in the enormously privileged position I’m in is that I’ve had a series of life-changing experiences in a short amount of time, so that it’s quite difficult to pick them all apart. One of them was going to Madagascar, which is a place unlike any other. I use allegories and comparisons a lot to understand the places I visit, and I found it difficult to think of anything to compare Madagascar with.
In terms of something more specific, in Zambia I realized that something I thought was local inefficiency was actually a direct result of colonial hierarchy, reducing the amount of responsibility to people in the chain of command. It was in a hotel that I realized this. Anyone who wasn’t the boss at the hotel was not allowed to make any kind of decisions, consequently nothing got done. I realized this awful, crippling power of colonialism in a firsthand way, not in a way that just comes from a textbook, and I could see how a hierarchy like that could really damage a country.
How can tourists play a more socially responsible role in the communities they visit?
It’s as simple as making sure that the money you spend does not go immediately into the pocket of a large multinational corporation, but into the hands of the people who live in the area. That’s if you want to directly benefit the area. Whether it’s by staying in so-called eco-lodges and guest houses — if you stay in a place on a more intimate, personal and local level like that, you also get to meet and interact with the people who live there, and you’ve got more chance of taking back an understanding from them, a potentially life-changing experience — rather than if you stayed at a more established brand. You’re more part of the process of adding to homogenization and global branding, which has its place. But at the same time, if you’re interested in retaining the identity of the community, then it makes sense not to participate in activities that threaten that identity.
What attracts you to any given destination? What is it that really draws you in?
If you go visit a culture and they like to dance and they have music, you’re gonna have a good time. I’m not a beach person, and even though I have absolutely one of the best jobs in the world, it’s still a job, its hard work working in a significant amount of heat. For the record I’ve been fortunate enough to be in some incredible landscapes. But not being a great poet or anything, in terms of TV, sooner or later you run out of words like “majestic” and “grand” and “epic.” But when you’ve got great people — that’s what I really love. In Rio the people are very fantastic, in Havana, in Colombia, in Mexico.
Also food. I’m very fond of eating, so that plays a big part. I quite like to go to places I have absolutely no idea about, and from the point of view of the program, it’s good if it’s difficult to get to as it gives us something to struggle against. I’m actually seriously thinking of going on holiday to Libya, because I’ve no idea what its like. It’s not quite part of the Axis of Evil, but it’s a poorly thought-of country, now our friend technically, and sort of Mediterranean, so the climate will be nice.
What are the biggest mistakes that a travel host can make during filming?
Missing the plane. And missing the point. There’s a danger — and I think that this applies to a lot of journalism — the disdain that shows up in one’s desperation to find the story. Or one starts writing the story before one has found it and consequently you end up writing what you want to write, not what’s really actually happening. And that’s why I always try to make time just to wander around a location in order to just get a feel for the place. And again I go back to the thing of what I do is very, very subjective. But if it’s going to be subjective I like it to be a well-researched subjectivity.
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Beginning Oct 21, Rough Guide premieres every Tuesday from 10:30 to 11 p.m. and encores every Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on Discovery Travel & Living.