Long Way Round

My desire to travel was originally inspired by books. The television show The Amazing Race, however, goosed me into action. I loved seeing the different countries and cultures teams visited as they raced around the world (“…for one million dollars!”)

After I began my own series of travel adventures, however, I realized the “reality” shown on the Race wasn’t very real. Early seasons spent some time lingering over people and locales, and contestants experienced some cultural clashes, but as time wore on, the producers de-emphasized this stuff and the countries became convenient backdrops to stunts and challenges. (Last season seemed to be better, I should note.)

I’d kind of given up hope of finding a television show that actually imparted a sense of what it’s like to travel to other countries. Everything is too produced: glossy, slick, selective, exaggerated, unreal.

Last weekend, however, Kim and I discovered Long Way Round, a show from 2004 that follows actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they ride motorcycles around the world from London to New York. The series, which is available on Netflix streaming, is not glossy and slick and over-produced. Instead, it provides a fantastic sense of what it’s like to spend time in foreign places with foreign people.

Here’s the official trailer:

That doesn’t really sell it, I know. It shows prep stuff and not actual travel. The actual travel is fun. For most of the show, they’re not riding on asphalt. They’re riding their motorbikes through dirt and sand and marsh and rivers. They fall down constantly. It’s brutal.

Along the way, they see some amazing places, the likes of which we’re never exposed to in the U.S. What’s it like in southern Russia? In Mongolia? In Kazakhstan? McGregor and Boorman (and their team) film it. And they film their interactions with the people they meet, who are mostly warm and welcoming.

Here’s a scene where some Mongolian farmers welcome the crew to their home to try a local delicacy, animal testicles:

And here’s one where they meet abandoned children who live in the sewers of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia:

We’ve seen five of the nine episodes so far, and are eager to watch the rest. When we’ve finished Long Way Round, we’ll watch the sequel, Long Way Down, which follows McGregor and Boorman as they ride from northern Scotland to the southern tip of Africa.

If you’re interested in travel or motorcycles, I recommend this series. If you’re interested in both, I recommend it highly.

Bonus! I just found another clip on Vimeo. Apparently this is behind-the-scenes footage of a bit we haven’t watched yet.

Spitfire 944

Here’s a lovely short film (about fifteen minutes) about a tiny slice of World War II history. William Lorton’s great uncle was a doctor in the U.S. Army Air Corps. There, he shot 90 minutes of personal footage of the war, including one segment of a crash on an airstrip in England.

Through a bit of internet detective work, Lorton tracked down the pilot who survived the crash. In the film, the 83-year-old John Blyth tells his story and — for the first time ever — views the footage of the crash. It’s much more interesting than it sounds.

Here’s Spitfire 944:

You can read more about the film at this Sundance Film Festival page and at Wikipedia.

In Praise of Traffic Circles

From the first time I drove on English roads in 2007, I’ve been in love with the roundabout.

Roundabouts are seldom used in the United States. There are a few around Portland (and, especially, in Lake Oswego and Bend), but mostly we favor traffic lights. But traffic lights create congestion. From what I’ve seen in the U.K., roundabouts allow for a constant flow of traffic. They may even breed drivers who are more polite!

This morning, Jason Kottke shared this video, which describes how one village in northern England decided to do away with a traffic light and replace it with a double roundabout. In the process, they created a more usable public space, decreased the speed of traffic, and yet maintained good traffic flow.

Traffic circles aren’t always great. The Place de la Concorde in Paris (and the Arc de Triomphe, actually) can have nasty gridlock, for instance. But generally speaking, I’m a fan, and I think we should try them more here in the U.S. (Or maybe other cities and states already use them? I’ve never noticed them elsewhere, but maybe I haven’t been to the right places…)

Note: When Kim and I were driving across England last month, our one frustrating afternoon was made more frustrating because we didn’t understand British traffic terminology. People kept telling us to go left at “Elk Island” (where “elk” may have actually been some other word). Well, we kept driving past where we thought this island ought to be. It was only after I stopped to ask for a third set of directions that it dawned on me that sometimes a roundabout (or traffic circle) is called an “island”. D’oh!