The Woke and the Bourgeois

Misadventures in Haiti

Luminous, turquoise swimming hole and a waterfall

The Bassin Bleu in Jacmel, Haiti

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October 16th, 2020 at 1:54pm

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The show came out in 2018, but I've just started watching.

In The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan (BBC, HBO Max), a British comedian goes straight for the jugular of the concept of a travel show, turning leisure porn inside out by exploring a simple question: is it worth visiting countries with terrible reputations?

In providing an answer in Episode 1, however, Ranganathan manages to unite disparate camps - not around a rallying point of feel-good warmth, but around revulsion.

Flipping convention

Traditional travel shows, especially luxury shows, can bore the wanderlustful, the world-weary and jaded, or the woke, none of whom, for varying reasons, have a prolonged interest in watching white people sip drinks on a yacht.

Most members of the contemporary travel tribe read travel blogs and travel memoirs, and we have diverse opinions on overtourism, traveling like locals, and "hidden gems." Travel, for us, is not just commercial and individual - it's also political and social. Even spiritual.

A voodoo priest holds a candle while two participants look at it in a dark, smoky room

A voodoo priest scares the crap out of Romesh Ranganathan (RAN ga nay thin)

Certainly, many people love a near-lethal dose of opulent escapism in their travel TV. They want the pretty, the fun, the romantic. Travel for them is mostly about getting away and being entertained - something with which we can all identify.

Those in the latter group are more susceptible to disappointment by The Misadventures. The likelihood of shrugging anticlimax, or even jagged unpleasantness, is built into the premise of the show.

S1 E1

We don't ease into it gingerly. Season One opens with an episode on Haiti, the Caribbean island known for poverty, crime, and earthquakes.

The segment... is fascinating and heartbreaking from a sociological perspective, but as a travel show, it's boring, ugly, and sad.

Port-au-Prince. Yay.

Ranganathan arrives in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and stays at the faded Hotel Oloffson overlooking the city. Accompanied by a local guide, he:

  • Looks at a sculpture garden full of works with large penises
  • Drives through the city, seeing working class people in their everyday lives
  • Meets a famous local rapper in his studio
  • Goes to the Iron Market to buy offerings for a voodoo ceremony
  • Stops by a tailor for some badass maraschino cherry red trousers
  • Enjoys a beer at an unmistakably DIY bar
  • Tours the Cité Soleil slum
  • Buys a lottery ticket
  • Visits the cathedral destroyed by the 2010 earthquake

While a few of these activities may sound interesting, in the show almost none of them actually are. The segment on Port-au-Prince is fascinating and heartbreaking from a sociological perspective, but as a travel program, it's boring, ugly, and sad. Ranganathan's humor and charisma bridge the many gaps and keep the episode watchable - but just barely.

A Quick Jaunt

After the intensity of the capital, Ranganathan and his guide fly to Jacmel, on the southern coast, where they check into a picturesque hotel at the water's edge. Surrounded by palm trees, they sigh in appreciation. You can almost hear our host thinking, Thank God I'm out of Port-au-Prince.

Hotel surrounded by palm trees on a beach with a few boats

Abaka Bay and Resort. Photo by Claudia Altamimi (Mods)

In Jacmel, the pair endure a voodoo ceremony and swim in the luminous, turquoise waters of the Bassin Bleu. Later, as the episode closes, Ranganathan chills on the beach and talks about ethical travel, and how someone may want to avoid the capital but visit Jacmel - especially if they wish to help Haitians.

Fin.

Intersecting likes

The episode made a compelling case that Haiti's undertourism was justified.

The likelihood of shrugging anticlimax, or even jagged unpleasantness, is built into the premise of the show.

It wasn't all bad, though. Ranganathan's leap into the Bassin Bleu had everything necessary for a brief and engaging story: nature, laughter, beautiful colors, fear, and a clean, simple resolution. One couldn't feel anything other than a contact high for our host as he plunged sixty feet into the blue water.

Intersecting dislikes

It was fortunate the episode ended with a dive into clear, clean water, because after Ranganathan's tone-deaf excursion through the Cité Soleil slum, my soul needed a cleansing.

Back in Port-au-Prince, our host had hired a special guide, Ivan, for the tour. After meandering through a deteriorating concrete labyrinth, the crew visited Ivan's mother, who flatly said she disliked her home and had so for decades. We understood why. She lived in a sad, awful place surrounded by sad, awful places.

[He turns] leisure porn inside out by exploring a simple question: is it worth visiting countries with terrible reputations?

Filthy trash rivers snaked through the slum. Children ran naked. The paths and streets were made of mud and covered in garbage. The available water was opaque with chemicals. Inhabitants scowled at the camera. Our host called it "the worst poverty I've ever seen."

When the visit ended, a drone gave us a final shot of misery and pollution before Ranganathan indulged in self-assessment from the backseat of his SUV. "I've got to be honest. I actually felt like we shouldn't really be filming there," he said. "It felt like us Westerners coming in and pointing our cameras at these people who are living in horrible conditions. It felt a little bit icky."

People sifting through trash or rubble in front of decrepit buildings as a dog walks by

The streets of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Susan Mohr (Mods)

It was worse than icky

Slum tourism is loathsome, whether or not one's intentions are superficially laudable.

We could argue about those intentions - shining a light on poverty or spending money in a devastated economy - but they didn't even apply here. Ranganathan punched the viewer's ticket to a poverty freak show when he was supposed to be evaluating the merits of visiting a given country. What possible service to the show's mission statement did the expedition serve? Does he visit slums when he travels to New York or Paris?

What possible service to the show's mission statement did the expedition serve?

Cité Soleil was a horrible turnoff to someone looking for escapist travel porn, as well as to those who have seen poverty all over the world and don't believe it should be aired on television to scratch a voyeur's itch.

With one scene, Ranganathan managed to offend the woke and the bourgeois. In these polarized times, when Team A is only right when Team B is wrong, that's impressive.

And shameful.

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