Conversations around travel are shifting rapidly. As social justice movements push our society to evolve, the colonial and exploitive aspects of the travel experience are being highlighted and called out. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has underscored both the interconnectivity of humans and the fragility of many of our systems. Plus it’s grounded us for the foreseeable future — make wanderlust-inspiring TV, when done well, all the more vital.
This is the context for last week’s release of Rogue Trip on Disney+. The show stars longtime war reporter Bob Woodruff, who was injured in Iraq in 2006, and his son Mack, a talented young photographer. The premise is simple and representative of the conversations happening around travel right now — Bob wanted to show Mack the world he’d reported on and wash away any longheld stigmas about those nations; Mack wanted to have the sort of adventure he’d grown up hearing about from his dad while drawing his own conclusions.
To film Rogue Trip, the duo visited Colombia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Ukraine in an attempt to re-evaluate media-driven perceptions of the places Bob had worked as a reporter. Also to eat, play, and connect with locals, all time-honored entries in the travel TV playbook. (Both father and son are engaged hosts — a segment in which they compete to get the better deal on a goat is both culturally respectful and fun.) The result is a series that balances sweeping vistas and unique foodways with smaller moments of connection, set against a generational backdrop. And while some of the heavier questions currently plaguing the travel world aren’t wrestled with here, the desire to find commonality in the human experience and honor cultural traditions, especially in places that have long been stigmatized, feels deeply significant.
On the eve of Rogue Trip‘s six-episode launch on Disney+, I spoke with Mack and Bob Woodruff about their experience of traveling together, how they approached the show, and the storied legacy of Anthony Bourdain.
I’m excited about this show and I think it’s a really interesting conversation to be having right now. What was the genesis around saying, “Okay, we have this opportunity to do a travel show — what we want to do is to take on places that, through the media, have become places Americans seem to have a certain level of xenophobia about, or have maybe been misportrayed, or portrayed as one-note”?
Mack: My dad has been in the media for more than 30 years, so he knows that this problem exists, and it’s something that he’s, I think, struggled with at times during his career of saying, “I’m in this beautiful place of Pakistan or Afghanistan, and all I’m doing is talking about the war that’s here. And while that’s incredibly important, no country can be defined by one thing.” So an opportunity presented itself, and I think the show was actually initially supposed to be with just you, dad, and then Disney+ came around. And I’ve been a photographer and a videographer for a while and Disney+ obviously has a very family-friendly audience. So we wanted to make a family travel show. I said, “yes!” faster than you could possibly even imagine.
I’ve been in travel media for a long time and I’ve seen how destinations get kind of stigmatized. What was the impulse to say like, “Oh, this is the story that needs to have a generational aspect?” Because I think that’s really cool. One of the things we’re seeing so much in society right now is that some of these generational learnings are handed down and they’re wrong, and they get carried out. So there was very much this aspect of the show for me, that is like, “I’m rethinking how we think things and handing new messages down.” What was the thought process behind that, or the decision-making behind that for you?
Bob: All of these years of traveling to places, there’s always… You can’t cover everything. You can’t see everything, so it’s hard to get a really good sense of the depth of the country. It’s not that simplistic. So you’re never going to be able to be successful summarizing a country and a culture, you know?
You can never accomplish it. What I do know is that a lot of times, I’ve always covered one side — a crisis, a war, starvation, environmental collapse. These kinds of sad elements, generally, is what makes news. But I have not been able to cover much the other elements that are not news, because they’re ongoing and they’ve always been the case in history. In this one, we wanted to create a little bit more of a balance for me and Mack, who sees the good and the bad, and just to tell the world that it’s hard to find the most amazing place because there are, as you said, almost propaganda around them.
We’ve done war reporting in the past, and though we’ve not done the other extreme side, you do see like the foreign ministry propaganda videos. Either one, a little piece of both balances out.
That balance lands you in a more authentic, realistic spot.
Mack: And I think your point about generations and why that is an important part of this show. I think my dad is almost 60 and I’m almost 30. And those two generations, for us, grew up in different Americas. And for the people that we were talking to in these countries, their country, when the older generation was young, looks different than the country that younger generation is growing up in. And in America, we kind of know what that looks like, but we didn’t know what that looked like in these countries.
In Pakistan, a lot of the young kids don’t necessarily have memories of what a war-torn or Taliban-occupied country looks like. And in Columbia, some of the younger generations doesn’t know what it means to live in a Colombia that’s a bit torn up from drug trafficking. So I was able to relate a little bit better with the younger generation and my dad a little bit more the older generation, but it’s important to tell both of those stories because every country is evolving and every generation, even after my generation, is different than mine. That’s a good conversation to be having.
Travel for me has always been so kinetic. Did you find that your travel styles and the way that you wanted to see things diverged or was there a lot of similarity and overlap there? Is that something that was in conflict on the road? I imagine that as much as you can reflect on it all now and go, “Wow, what a special trip,” were there things that were in conflict on the road?
Mack: Oh yeah. As our cameraman on the first episode, Keith Luzinski said, “All these trips are going to have a high dose of type two fun.” And type two fun from what he explained to me basically means during the time that you’re there, it’s not really that enjoyable, but it’s always incredibly enjoyable to look back on. So while we’re sitting out in these, we’re in a canoe for eight hours and we’re getting sunburned to a crisp, that’s not fun in itself — but it’s really fun to sit here and talk to you about it.
It’s cool to see it on TV, would I eat that bug in Columbia again, right now? Not particularly interested in it, but it’s great that I did it and I’m happy I did it.
In terms of our traveling style, my dad’s been doing this professionally for so long. So he knows, and he’s gravitated towards character stories and he understands that you can’t go to a country and just shoot the beautiful mountains and the crystal clear lakes and the foliage. You have to get some real down-to-earth human elements that allow the audience to relate. And I didn’t have that natural instinct when I got there, because I’ve been a photographer. And so I would just… things would attract my eye and I would want to go and show them. So my dad kind of had to reel me back and say, “Hey, this is like, that is incredibly beautiful. And we will have time for that. But first we got to talk to this guy and this girl and this kid about their experiences here and what makes this place so special to them, and then we can go and explore it a bit more.” That was something that I learned from him pretty quickly.
I like that. I would say that’s the reflective-versus-kinetic thing of a father and son that I was trying to get at. That was well put. Bob, did you have a different impression of that?
Bob: I just really think that, listen, these are beautiful places and I’ve been to them before when there’s huge, gigantic breaking news. And I think it’d be a real challenge to do a travel story in places like this that would really interest people unless it’s got some different perspective. And one of them is, I’ve got someone with me who can tell the story, who’s grown up in very different decades. Because I think we always assume when we’re old that everything we saw 30 years ago is probably going to be pretty much the same as it was 30 years ago. But I remember growing up and my father had no real idea what the personalities within certain countries were. I had to go to them.
I was addicted to traveling early on, I think partly because I did not feel like I was getting the true stories out of countries. And I think Mack and I have different ideas of what a country is before we go there based on our generations. So I think it was great to have a more balanced report that has come from two different perspectives.
Who were the people and what were the conversations across the history of travel TV that you both looked at and said, “Okay, these are touchstones or these are people doing it right. Or these are things we want to avoid.”?
Mack: I think if I had a nickel for every time my dad or someone on the crew brought up Bourdain, I’d be a pretty rich man. I think everyone, awe of what that guy did, in a lot of ways blazed the trail for maybe what my dad and I did together on the show. In terms of what other travel programs I consumed, I think, I mean, I gravitated a lot towards the Planet Earth stuff, and I’m a huge documentary fan. So 180 Degrees South, and those stories of incredible adventures are some stuff that I’ve always loved. But we really did set out to make something different. I think the father-son thing has been done before, but never on a travel show that looks like this, especially not with a foreign correspondent that’s been to war-torn countries a lot. So I don’t know if I answered your question fully, but…
You did! Bob, what were your touchstones?
Bob: I think I would just say that food has been an amazing entry point because people can relate to it. People can relate to food, so you can tell serious stories and bring real news to people. Someone like John Oliver, he’s able to use humor to tell stories and bring people to do it. I think sometimes, for me as a war correspondent to go back to a country I’ve been to before, it’s not going to be as easy to get people pay attention, but to have my son there, a guy with a perspective and also with reporting skills of his own, I think it seemed to open things up. I was able to, for me to learn a lot more and younger audiences have someone they can relate to.
Mack: I think that as much as Bourdain was a chef and his love for food was very contagious, his show wasn’t really a food show. They just use food as a way of helping to tell a story about a specific place. So I think we’re using the father and son thing as our version of Anthony Bourdain’s food — we were there to tell a story about a country, we used our relationship as father and son as the way that people can hopefully relate to that sense. Everyone eats food and a lot of people have kids of their own. So I guess that was one of our goals.
One of the things from travel TV that has been slowly rejected for 10 or so years now, and is now getting more quickly rejected, is this fine line between kind of “othering” cultures versus celebrating them, right? Where you go and you taste a food and you go, I think 20 years ago it was like, “Ewww, that’s strange!” And now it’s like, “Okay, this is different to me.”
How do you walk that balance between saying, “Hey, this is exciting and new and not in my lived experience,” but at the same time, “I’m not going to act like something is generally bizarre or weird because there are millions of people whose lived experience it is representative of”?
Mack: I think not bringing your value judgments to the table is important for that situation. I mean, we didn’t do a lot of exotic food tasting stuff, but we did find ourselves in pretty uncomfortable situations a lot. That was the goal of the show. But I wouldn’t say we ever cast value on that or felt like we were superior in any way, because we were American and our cultures are better than yours. That was not how we approached it at all, and my dad has certainly imprinted that on me at a young age that you can go to a really, really dangerous country, and if you act the right way, you’ll be totally fine. Or you can go to a really safe, perceived safe country and act in the complete wrong way and find yourself in dangerous situations. So it’s all about not imposing your values on someone else.
Bob, do you want to speak to that too? I think that’s an interesting one for both of you.
Bob: We didn’t really set out a plan of how to act or how do we approach our own decisions or how we accept or reject something that was introduced to us. I don’t think we had this as a plan of how to act. It was purely what our natural instincts were. I think that’s really what we ended up using. I don’t know what’s right or wrong and you watch it, you’ll see, if is a good or a bad way of treating differences in culture or something brand new to us from a new culture. But I think we have just pretty much… We played ourselves, we didn’t really… It was really much more news reporting in many ways. We were out there… We were not acting out a show. So I’m not sure there’s a lot that we can say other than that.
Anything you guys looked for as you traveled? Certain communities that you wanted to tap into? Mack, you surf, don’t you — did you find surfers on the road?
Mack: I am a half-decent surfer. I wouldn’t say I’m a surfer, but I’m on my way. For me, I had this idea in my head that I was going to try to play soccer with as many kids in the country that we went to as possible. So I actually packed, kind of in retrospect, was a silly decision, but I brought nine deflated soccer balls in my suitcase with the hopes of pumping them up on the street and getting a little game going with kids. It never quite manifested itself in the ways that I had daydreamed about, but I was able to give a few soccer balls away and make a couple of kids happy.
I do find that I’m always awestruck by how kids, no matter where you are, are really, they’re just the exact same kids that you were when you were growing up in the sense of they’re very full of wonder and curiosity, and they don’t have social norms deeply ingrained in them yet. And they don’t feel weird about pointing at me and saying, “Why is your skin a different color?” Or, “Why do you look that way?” Or, “What’s that big camera in your hand?” They just are incredibly curious, and I gravitated towards that a lot.
“Rogue Trip” is streaming on Disney+.