Stephen Fry in Central America

I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.

Journey Time: unknown, 2014/15

Countries visited: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama

First, an apology: Michael Palin’s Brazil was basically unwatchable by any legal or even quasi-legal means. Such is the nature of streaming that niche media is harder to find when it should be easier.

But between Brazil and Stephen Fry in Central America (which was nearly impossible to track down; I ended up watching a mirrored version on Dailymotion), these travelogues are illustrating one of the great discomforts of travel that the age of television has never really had to deal with before: everything in motion, everything in crisis. Stephen Fry in Central America, for its part, really wants to have it both ways: to illustrate the challenges faced by these countries, but to do so in a hopeful and genial way. And while future audiences might find it a success, there’s an undercurrent of tension and horror through most of the series that’s hard to block out.

Beginning in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico– not a country that considers itself to be part of Central America, but the UK sees differently– Fry trades in his old London cab for an unwieldy chicken bus (a retired school bus-turned-RV common to the region) and tries to get the full experience. Fry pulls a Michael Palin by doing a bit part in a telenovela, receives a Mayan religious blessing, plays with tropical animals in Costa Rica, and even rediscovers two forgotten corners of the British Empire: Belize and the Mosquito Coast.

In fairness, my ambivalence toward this series is more accurately an ambivalence about the state of the world, but my only point against this series is that it is only four episodes long when Stephen Fry in America was six. Check it out if you can find it.

Five Stars: The series begins on a serious high note in Mexico– not just an apex of sights, but of emotion: the show was filmed shortly after the famous disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala, and Fry breaks down in tears when he attends the protest, seeing the legacy of Mexico’s revolutionary past proudly living on.

Almost unexpected is a whiplash-inducing encounter in a Honduran women’s prison, where Fry meets a little old lady who’s serving life, but I won’t spoil the details.

One Star: Costa Rica, the Denmark of the Americas, gets the stereotypical gushing treatment, but the show might take the constant adoration of the country a bit too far in this case. Noting that Costa Rica is a hotspot of medical tourism for Americans shackled to for-profit health insurance, Fry attends live surgery and we see everything. I didn’t need that.

Next Time: Michael Palin in North Korea