When I think about the times I came closest to death, I think about Vietnam: Almost mowed down by traffic, almost blown up by explosives, almost bit by cobras.
Vietnam was also memorable because of a unique idea: riding a tandem bicycle around Hanoi, picking up a variety of passengers, and gathering a piece of their life story. It's an idea any traveler can adopt and I highly encourage it.
Transporting the bike from the store was a rectum-puckering experience. Neither the cameraman nor I had been on a tandem before, so we negotiated the technique as we crossed through the heart of Hanoi at rush hour. Thousands of motorcycles, lorries, and cars galloped past us. And if you know Vietnam, you know these vehicles can be coming from every possible angle. Don't just look left. Don't just look both ways. Look 360° all the time.
I'm always excited to come back to the taco trucks of Los Angeles, but there are certain travel destinations where I never tire of the food. Vietnam falls into that category. I could slurp pho for weeks straight. One thing you should not slurp is the tap water. A crew member drank out of the shower nozzle and had stomach problems for half a year.
Overall Vietnam can be a tough destination for the independent traveler. Destinations like Sapa and Halong Bay have been overbaked in the tourism oven. Yet, the places we feature in the episode are packed with genuine people and moments. If you avoid the popular hotspots and take unique angles to your approach, Vietnam is an extremely rewarding destination.
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Saturday at 9PM
“We can’t get on the flight??” I said to the agent. The flight to Hanoi was in final boarding.
“Sorry sir, but you don’t have the proper visa,” the agent replied firmly.
We were in limbo at Changi Airport, half way between the Philippines and Vietnam. Someone on our team screwed up and we didn't have our ducks in line. Vietnam would have to wait.
We went to a cafe in the airport and flipped open our laptops looking for a new direction.
Seven hours later I found "Shoe Dating" in Kuala Lumpur and we left the airport to pursue the lead.
From the shoe dates the whole Malaysian episode evolved. One date invited the crew to a party. Some of her friends were speaking about a political situation in Sarawak and I joined the conversation. I knew at once that this was an issue we had to cover. The episode took a dramatic turn.
While in Sarawak I experienced a really gratifying travel moment. We'd just arrived at the longhouse of some displaced locals. These structures embrace the concept of community in their design. Dozens of families reside in the longhouse; their spaces connected by stairs, bridges, and a gigantic back porch. After we dropped our bags the producer went to find the toilet and the cameraman and I decided to take a stroll along the porch. About 50 meters down I saw a sign on a door in English which said "Welcome! Come on in!" I pushed it open.
"Oh." exclaimed a man with his feet propped up on his desk, surprised at the two Caucasians entering his space.
It appeared to be a small convenience store for the residents of the longhouse. He had closed for the day.
"Sorry," I said, "the sign on the door said to come in."
"No, it's ok," the man replied in broken English, "my sister and wife are in the back. Come with me."
He led us to a room where the two women were making embroideries out of beads.
A large bottle of rice wine was opened and stories we shared. After an hour of this, it was hard to leave. I mean it was literally hard to leave. Every time I drained my glass and began the farewell speech (“Well, it was a real pleasure.. thanks so much for..”) the glass was immediately filled again. Both the cameraman and I made several failed attempts and were becoming progressively more inebriated. One or two more chances were left before we’d collapse right there on the floor.
With refined technique I shot the liquor down, lowered the empty glass to the table, and simultaneously stood up with a mouth full of gratitude. I was two steps from the table before anyone could top me off. The cameraman set down his empty glass but was too slow rising, so he got another one. I grinned back at him as I edged for the door.
Imagine yourself walking down the hallway of an apartment complex in your country and pushing open a random door. What are the chances you'd get invited in for some wine and a good conversation? In my city the odds would be slim. That's partially because of the design of the housing. There have been several studies that demonstrate how the shape of neighborhoods affects one’s sense of community and overall happiness.
You'll notice as you travel that you gain a new appreciation for the things your country does well, but you’ll also realize that other places do certain things better. Staying with the tribes of Sarawak convinced me that they have designed housing that fosters connection, and solid community is a key factor in keeping myself positive. I don’t want that house way up on the hill looking down on everyone else. That home will become my lonely prison. I want to be down in the community relating with people. I can hike up the hill to get a view.
The tribes of Sarawak need all the community they can get to overcome the recent challenges they've faced. As you'll see some are handling the difficulties better than others, but there is true beauty in the sacrifices made for a better tomorrow.
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Tuesday night at 10.
Do you believe in Monsters? How about demons? In the Visayas, a series of islands in central Philippines, plenty of people do. They can even point to real life cases.
In this episode of Road Less Traveled I took a dark dive into investigative journalism. A school was afflicted with a case of mass demon possession. Kids howled and fought with the strength of adults. Not far off a village was allegedly attacked by a Filipino vampire called a manananggal, a beast that rips in half at night when it looks for blood and flesh. A child was found dead and another man was ambushed on a road in the middle of the night.
A lot of shows on TV which deal with the supernatural feel so hokey I can't help but believe they are simply pandering to the audience. What you'll witness on this episode was completely raw and organic. I got a tip and pursued the story. I struggled for days trying to put the pieces together. The resolution of one case was more complex and fantastic than could be imagined. The resolution of the other was muddled and troubling.
What do you think of these tales? What did you see?
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Saturday at 9PM in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
"Why is everyone in a tizzy?" I asked my new boxing trainer.
"Because Manny is coming," he said.
Meeting famous Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao was certainly a highlight of our first episode in the Philippines, and, as many things on our show, it was completely unexpected. His arrival was like the return of the king. Eyes lit up, the vibration on the streets buzzed, and people fawned to be near him. Hell, even I felt a little tongue tied when we chatted through the ropes.
A very different kind of tension hummed as I entered the so called "slum" of Tondo. I walked through a gate to descend. A creeping fear ran through my head that it might lock from the inside, sealing me into the neighborhood.
As I entered eyes peered from all kinds of angles amidst the dilapidated alleyways. I could feel people watching. Middle-class conditioning took the stage of my mind and performed a monologue: "This is a place to fear. You can't trust these people."
Some adults came out of a doorway and approached. They offered to show me around. I looked up to my crew, cautiously filming from the freeway above, and called them down. I admit, sheepishly, that I hoped I hadn't summoned them into a trap.
Why does our species have this propensity to create the "other"? The people in that neighborhood, in that country, across the tracks, with that accent, or with that skin color are distinct from us.
Recently I took a small vacation to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. A good friend picked me up from the airport. He’s a kind hearted, open-minded guy. He cautioned me almost immediately about the locals, warning that their disdain for invasive mainlanders could manifest in violent ways. Although his intentions were good, my mind created a separate folder labeled "locals." Anyone in that category would now have the stigma of danger.
Days later I walked, bleary eyed, into a supermarket looking for a coffee stand. A big and strong local cruised by holding a large coffee cup in his hand.
"Hey man," I said, "did you get that coffee in here?"
The guy's rugged face broke into the warmest smile I'd seen on the island.
"Yeah bro, you can get it over there at that counter."
This was an alpha male of the dangerous “other” tribe affably directing me to my nearest caffeine fix. Not so scary after all.
How can we surmount this divisive way of thinking? The answer is to travel. Not all-inclusive, stay in the resort type travel, but get out and meet the people travel. As I mentioned in a speech I would give later in the Philippines, travel is not about the distance you go or the budget you have to spend. It is simply the act of having unique experiences with people different than you. actually, travel is about having unique experiences with people whom you perceived to be different than you. What we inevitably discover is that there is very little which separates us.
We all love something and fear something. We all want to belong. We all worry about the future. We're essentially the same consciousness spread over the globe, born into different circumstances, with different bodies and brains, from no effort of our own. Some were conceived in Peoria, Illinois and some in Tondo, Manila.
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Saturday at 9PM
I'm Jonathan Legg
I went to college, but I still graduated a closed minded young man. The road, however, has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and facilitating understanding and appreciation for people different from me. I hope the content on this blog and my shows can bring a sliver of that juju to you.