Weird Research: The Michael Palin Travelogues, Part I: Around the World In Eighty Days

Sheesh, can that title get any longer?

As I said in a previous post, I wanted to revamp my “Weird Research” series. It was getting too much to be a “how to use Wikipedia” tutorial, which was almost the exact opposite of what I wanted to accomplish with that series (Wikipedia has its uses, don’t get me wrong, but you need MORE than Wikipedia for research).  My goal was to show that there are things you never thing to research until you need them, and ways to research that you might never have thought of.  I might have managed to demonstrate the former, but not the later.

So, I figured I would do something fun, by watching the Michael Palin travelogues and taking “notes” for novel research from what I was watching… or at least tell you a little about what I see. Honestly, you should watch these things whether you’re doing research for a book or not.

The first of the travelogues is “Around the World in 80 Days.” And no, it’s not exactly a re-enactment of the Jules Verne novel.

Episode I:

The first episode (filmed from 1988-1989, released first on television in 1989, and on DVD in 2007) begins with establishing the trip. Michael Palin initially (well, at least for the camera) turns down the job, because he doesn’t have eighty days to film it in. It goes into preparation (including getting himself a physical, taking a number of vaccinations, packing, learning how to deal with various different types of crisis, discussing the issues of traveling from point to point, etc.). Interspersed in these scenes is him leaving by high-class British railway train (and later the Orient Express) in a nice suit (which is actually required for part of the train journey, which I would not have thought about), drinking champagne and eating a meal. It’s a good example of the kind of work that you need to do before going on a long journey.

He learns that the particular cabin he was in on the train had, during World War II, been a mobile brothel for soldiers.  While they don’t go into many details on that, it is a starting point to launch further research.

A strike forces him to leave the Orient Express, and instead take a bus to Venice, where he checks into a hotel located on a road he translates as “Pity Street.”  The hotel looks much more middle-class than I’ve seen from most travelogues, which adds a sense of earthiness and realism to the show.

It was a little run down, with peeling paint and wallpaper, but there he spends the night (without complaint).  The next morning he has time for a little exploration, going down the Venitian Canals on a (literal) garbage scow.  Much like a trash truck, the scow picks up trash bags from the side of the street and toss them into a bin.  Any bags which miss the bin have to be fished out by a pole.  He eventually encourages the garbageman he’s with to sing a somewhat bawdy (in italian) song.

Before leaving, he mails home the suit he wore on the Orient Express (he figures he won’t need it any more) and boarded a ferry (or perhaps a cruise ship?)  to cross the Mediterranean in, heading to Cairo by way of Athens.  He quickly demonstrates how easy it is to get lost on the ship.

There is an example of a unique form of bridge (instead of a drawbridge that raises to allow ships to pass, the bridge is lowered into the water underneath the ship), followed by a really narrow canal trip where he could have reached out from the ship and touched the walls.

He has video from Greece of the Ef-zones, one of the more… unusually outfitted military units out there, showing the changing of the guard (which, he says, they seem to do “in the most complicated way possible.”).  Then he has a demonstration of assembling the F-Zone uniforms, which take two people to put on.

But that’s all he has of Greece before he’s back on the cruise ship to Alexandria.  He briefly has some shots of him “helping” in the kitchens, though he quickly concludes that his work there was a boring film segment, and he transitions to a “grand Euro blow-out” dinner prior to hitting Egypt.

The episode concludes with him trying desperately to contact his bank as they enter the port at Alexandria, Egypt, while cameras filmed various ships that appeared to be in distress.

Episode II:

The second episode of this set begins with Michael Palin meeting a very interesting character picking him up in a horse-drawn carriage, of sorts.  Apparently, the driver’s name is Larry (actually Achmed, it is later revealed) and so is the horse’s name.  He ends up in the Alexandrian train (?) station, trying to get tickets for the next part of his journey.

The street scenes are interesting, with people in various forms of dress (styles both ancient and modern), doing various things you wouldn’t see happening on US streets, but he quickly passes through Alexandria and takes the train to Cairo.  On this train, he is able to get tea, but not milk or cream for it.  They show horrible traffic in Cairo, attend a “football” (soccer, for us US-Americans) game, and then he hunts down a non-chain hotel — the Hotel Windsor.  The hotel looks nice at first, but the plumbing doesn’t seem to work.

He gets talked into participating as an extra in a film shooting in Cairo the next day.  He has time for it, even though his original plans for travel were shot when his ship to the city of Jeddah (sp?) left early.  After quickly making alternate plans, he heads to a local bar to get some tea, only to be given a complimentary hooka to smoke (something he’s dubious about, as he had quit smoking twenty years before).

They show a bit of the behind-the-scenes of the film he’s invited to participate in, which is curiously being filmed in a Safeway supermarket.  If you want to get an idea of what film-making is like when you’re in a foriegn country and not supported by a major Hollywood studio or something comparable, this would be a good (if brief) study.

He makes it to the pyramids, and is talked into briefly riding a camel.  It’s his first time riding a camel (though, having seen all of the travelogues before, I know this isn’t his last).

He goes from the touristy camel-ride at the pyramids to a lousy car-trip in a rather run-down car to the Suez, where he learns that his hastily arranged back-up plan to get to Jeddah has been scuppered; the transport’s journey was cancelled because the ship he was going to take has broken down.

He hastily makes a Plan C, and manages to find a ferry to Saudi Arabia.  This new ship was once a cruise ship, and it shows Michael sitting in several sparsely-populated rooms that were once luxury restaurants and the like juxtaposed with the more populated decks where people are just sort of sprawled out wherever they can find room.  Unfortunately, this hitch in his plans makes it impossible to make his connecting ship.

He tries not to panic, showing videos of him playing dominos and bartering for a watch as they travel, but when he arrives in Jeddah he starts trying to make travel arrangements in ernest.  Still uncertain of his plans, he jogs through town, exploring several pieces of unusual, and oversized, modern art (like a bunch of cars cut in half and stuck in a concrete block).

Things get even worse in his plans — he can’t find a way to his next intended port, but even if he gets there he hears there is no way to make the next part of his journey, either.  He solves this with a car-trip across the desert to an alternate (but more distant) port… but cannot film it, because the Saudi government refuses to allow the camera crew past a certain (unspecified on camera) point.  The episode ends with him “abandoning” his film crew on the side of the road, driving onward.  (The film crew flies to catch up)

Episode III:

He can’t show film of his road trip, but he does have a few photographs as he drives over a thousand miles in  a single weekend.  He reunites with his camera crew in the port of Dubai, where he tries to find a dhow to travel to India in.

Port life is shown, as cows and the like are are loaded on board boats and the like.  Michael negotiates the trip from Dubai to Bombay, on a boat that will take a six day trip.  He must purchase his own food and supplies for the journey, and prepare to sleep on sacks of cargo on the deck of the boat.

He has film footage, briefly, of the ship construction — most of these ships are made in classic manners, using hand tools (including slightly modernized forms of primative tools like a bow drill).  This is a working shipyard, and that was really how they were building ships back then; a remarkable insight into the construction of the ships of yesteryear.

This is one of the most remarkable parts of the series, with the whole episode entirely about the short trip across the red sea on a rickety wooden boat, as everything is done by hand and human power.  The boat does have a motor, but it just as often travels by sail.

Michael tries to communicate with the largely Indian crew, even though few of them speak any English (and those that do speak a very broken form of it).  The crew is poorly paid (the crewman notes he is paid only 300 rupees for the journey across the sea.  A single sale of one of my books in India nets me about the same amount, today (which, converted to US dollars, is about $4).  That doesn’t account for 25 years of inflation, but I imagine it’s still a very small amount for six days of work).

Even the preparation of food is fairly primative, as food is crushed on a stone, and the rice is hand-washed in a basin large enough to feed 20, then is cooked on another stone slab (though this stone is heated by a gas flame).  They use compass, sextants and dead reckoning for navigation.  Dining is communal, featuring Indian cuisine (some form of vegetarian saag with a improvised rice porrage using buttermilk is shown, though there is a discussion of other foods).  Michael lets the members of the crew listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman (yes, Walkman; this was the 80s, remember?).  Much of each day is spent conserving energy, as the weather is too hot to do much when the crew isn’t required to work.  When they do have to work, the work is hard, and involves things like climbing masts, pulling old ropes through wooden pulleys, raising sails, etc.

Overall, it is a remarkable look into merchant sailers, with aspects that translate from time immemorial to (evidently) today.  If you were writing a naval adventure, this would show you quite a bit about daily life on a merchant ship.

However, he falls ill during the boat trip (while he doesn’t say it, I speculate it came from the saag that he so enjoyed; there are likely local pathogens the crew has adapted to that a man from England has never been exposed to).  A crewman tries to treat him with a sort of peculiar form of massage (basically walking on Michael), which does seem to help him some.

Michael ends the boat journey, and the episode, with a hearty and sincere farewell to the crew, with farewells all around, as he believes he will never see these people he made fast friends with.  (I have not seen it, but there is evidently a 20th anniversary special where he goes and finds this crew, and has a tearful reunion with them)

Episode IV:

Michael Palin begins the episode that, from London to Calcutta, he is a week behind what Phileas Fogg managed in Jules Vernes’ novel.  He goes to his hotel (the Taj, theoretically the most elegant hotel in India; a rare luxury for him in this series) before showing some street scenes.

He has to turn down a young beggar, which visibly disturbs him, as he notes that the begging problem in India was endemic to the city.  This was evidently on a trip to see a blind barber, from whom he gets a very good shave using a straight razor.

He then deals with the train station.  The operations shown at this very crowded (and a lot more modern) train station can be easily juxtaposed with the crowded train station you see earlier in Alexandria, Egypt.

He watches a rather macabre street performance by a snake handler doing a performance with a cobra and a mongoose.  He walks (very briefly) through a shanty town before ending up in a Hindu religious festival.

He juxtaposes this immediately with a Christian Cathedral (given India’s former status as a British Colony, I’d assume it was an Anglican church, but he doesn’t say), where he studies the memorials to fallen soldiers.

More street scenes (if I were writing a book set in modern-day India, I would watch these several times; as it is, mostly what I saw was crowds of people eating and enjoying himself).

A train trip on a very overcrowded Indian train to Madras.  There aren’t many shots of the inside of the train, but lots of very interesting shots of the scenery it passes by — I would not have thought cactuses grew in the wild in India were it not for some of these train shots.

He has an interview with a fellow passenger, who notes that different regions of India were almost like different countries, with different spoken languages, cuisines, and culture.  “You probably shouldn’t speak Hindi in Madras,” she warned.  The English language (leftover from their time as a British colony) may very well be the only thing unifying Northern and Southern India, she says.

Dining on the train is discussed (and demonstrated), as food is purchased when the train makes a brief stop along the route.  He notices the difference in food between Bombas and Madras, talking about how the food is getting spicier the closer he gets to the later city.

Arriving in the city, he goes on a dangerous bike-rickshaw ride to his hotel across a highway shared with bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and fast-moving cars.

After checking in, he tries once more (with more street scenes interspersed) to make the arrangements for the next stage, to Singapore.  He runs into a problem with insurance certification, as the ship he wants to go on is only certified to carry 18 people, and it already has a crew of 18.  He tries to make alternative arrangements while the travel company desperately tries to contact the insurer (Lloyd’s of London) to get a waiver.  These alternate arrangements are worse than useless, and the waiver is not allowed, so they have to make a Yugoslav-German-BBC-Cyprus-India international agreement (the captain was Yugoslav, the shipping line was run out of Germany, but the ship itself was owned by someone in Cyprus) to allow him and some of his film crew onto the ship in exchange for flying some of the ship’s crew ahead to Singapore.

As part of the agreement, Michael has to actually work as a deckhand (they show him “swabbing the deck” and painting some of the structure, at least) and as his own sound man for the filming.  They arrive in Singapore knowing he’s about to miss his connecting ship, which would end any hope of completing the journey in time.

Episode V:

You see darkened streets of Singapore as he rushes from launch to van (reuniting with the film crew) to another launch which motors him out four miles into the sea so he can get on board another cargo ship traveling to Hong Kong.  Here he makes up a little time on Phileas Fogg, but he’s still behind.

While he’s not on this ship for very long, having his film crew with him allows him to interview the captain of this container ship and his wife, where it’s pointed out that the ship needs miles of space for both acceleration and deceleration, and how much the Captains of such ships have become less concerned with running day-to-day operations as they are managing the finances.

He arrives in Hong Kong noting that he narrowly avoided two seperate disasters — one of the worst typhoons of the year, and a horrifying incident where a container exploded in the port.

In Hong Kong, instead of typhoons or container explosions, he’s surprised by a limo with champagne service and a drive to a nice luxury hotel (a real 5 star hotel, which gives him a little bit of a odd feeling after several days of sleeping on trains and container ships.

He’s invited to a celebration of reaching the half-way point on his trip, but it’s black tie.  He goes to a Hong Kong tailor who has an international reputation, which has had customers like David Bowie, Henry Kissinger, George Michael, and several other celebrities and politicians from around the world.

While waiting for the suit to be made, he goes to a street gathering of bird owners, where people walk their birds so they can socialize with other birds.  I would never have known there was such a thing in real life, had I not seen it on this show.

A trip to a horse race (the biggest game in town) and he wins a small bet.  The cashier at the racecourse recognizes him, and laughs through the entire transaction.  The next day, he goes to visit an old friend (Basil Pao), who will be his translator and travel companion in China, and later ends up his primary photographer for the next several trips.  Basil turns out to also be the father of Michael’s godson.  They do the math and figure out the baby was born at roughly the same time the journey began.

Basil brings up the point that traveling through China will be difficult, in part, because the local dialects are such that people just 30 kms apart from one another can’t understand each other, even though the written dialect is the same everywhere.

Before departing Hong Kong, he finally attends that party (having picked up his much talked about suit off-camera), where they discuss the then-upcoming reunion of Hong Kong and China, which was still several years away at the time this was filmed.

Passing through customs from Hong Kong to China is very quick — one of the faster border crossings he’s managed — and then he’s in another hotel with very westernized luxury (though with touristy-Chinese artistic stylings).

Before continuing on his journey, he decides to try a rather unique restaurant which only serves dishes made from a particular exotic meat — snake.  It’s a rather disturbing scene, and one which I’ve fast-forwarded through, but the way the restaurant handles and cooks the snakes could be used as interesting background color in a novel.

He gets on a Chinese train (you could make a case study on the differences in different countries and regions’ train conditions just by watching these travelogues), which — he notes — “even in China” has three different classes of passengers.  His “soft” class (the highest class) includes comfortable cabins, excellent food (the best he’s ever had on a train, at least at filming), board games, and a lamp that looks like a fortune teller’s crystal ball.

Most of his fellow passengers in “Soft Class” are from Taiwan — this was in the first year that Taiwanese people were allowed to return to China since the Maoist takeover.  Some of his observations are humorous, but you do have to wonder if there’s truth in them (such as the train’s staff member whose only job seems to be mopping the train’s carpeted floor).  And the train, for the first time on his journey, is on-time, ending the episode.

Episode VI:

Episode VI opens in Shanghai, with a history lesson of the town (noting that the port was mostly built to support the European opium trade, which gave portions of the town a very European architecture.  But only part of it; he goes to an apothecary shop which is very Chinese in style in design).  He purchases some Chinese medicinal energy formulae.

He laments not seeing much of China as he boards a ship traveling to Japan.  Having watched most of his travelogues, I know he will return several times, and see many sights that will never be seen again.

This ship is not a container vessel, but a cruise ship… which  he notes is barely occupied by passengers.  Exploring the ship, he finds a full of futon (the real, traditional style variety, not the nicely cushioned foldaway chairs that you find in the United States) but no other passengers.

He arrives in Yokohama, and promptly takes one of Japans famous bullet trains to Tokyo to meet a shipping agent and negotiate passage on a container ship.

His time in Tokyo, waiting for the ship to be ready, is spent using a BBC reporter as his guide.  He has conveyer-belt sushi, describes Japanese society as a “cultural magpie,” and then participates in some Karaoke.  He goes to a Capsule Hotel, which has a variety of wierd rules and odd television programs.  It’s an interesting interpretation of Japanese culture through his eyes (from my experience, this is just one side of many of Japanese culture, and not an especially flattering one.  I think he finds the experience a little lacking, as well, and returns to Japan in more than one other travelogue)

Afterwards, he boards the container ship, which will be one of the longest (travel-time) stretches of his journey, expending eleven days time.  Much as you could make a comparitive study of train travel from this travelogue, you could make a comparitive study of container ships as well (including another ship’s captain being interviewed about life on the sea).

There’s lots of bad weather, a drunken birthday party, a “celebration” of crossing the International Date Line (a rather psuedo-pagan initiation ceremony and unusual togas made from various nationality’s flags and a rather horrible drink cocktail), and many other attempts to end the boredom of this part of the trip.  He says he’s not sure he’ll ever cross the international dateline again… but, as we’ll see with some of his other journeys, that isn’t true.

And there the episode ends.

Episode VII:

The final episode of this set starts in California.  Michael stays at a hotel built from a permanently landlocked British cruise ship, the Queen Mary.  There’s some fun-looking street theater shown and the like, but he mostly just buzzes right through California to get on board an Amtrack sleeper-car train (yet another comparison point for train travel).

He interviews a few of his fellow passengers (including a professional clown) and crew.  There’s a brief layover in Colorado, where we see hot springs, skiing, a hot air balloon, and a dog-sled team.  Then to Chicago, where he has a near-miss of the final bit of train travel, and so on.  Compared to the first half of the trip around the world, however (okay, technically they passed the half-way point in Episode 6, but the bulk of the second half of the trip around the world is in this episode) there aren’t as many “side trips” focused on, and those that do take place don’t seem to get quite as much focus as the ones in other parts of the series. On the other hand, they have a lot of scenery, a few interesting bits of street entertainment briefly shown, etc.

It may be the film crew just wasn’t as interested in the US, or it may be that they were simply running out of steam, or budget, or something, but this final episode — at least as far as “research project” material is concerned — is a little bare.  It does get him all the way back to England, and he successfully completes the journey in 80 days… barely matching Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.  And then they spend about as much time on his return home as they do in America.


Okay, so the above seems more like a dry re-telling of the events in the series instead of proper research, but that’s only a first step. It might sound tedious to do this for everything you ever watch (or at least everything you own on DVD), but when you find something as full of information as these travelogue series it can be worth it.

I have a character in one of my series who is blind — suppose I wanted to have her shave the beard off her husband (a scene that nearly happened in In Forgery Divided, but it never quite materialized).  Well, I can use these notes to locate exactly where to go to find a scene where a blind man works as a barber; I can watch that scene, and I should be able to replicate it (with the differences needed by the story for both plot purposes and to indicate the relationship between shaver and shavee).

I have two different ongoing fantasy series set in a period before modern medicine, and I’m constantly looking for viable folk remedies which “good” doctors with that background might have used.  Well, there was a folk-remedy treatment (which seemed to work) for sour stomaches on a ship that, thanks to these notes, I know I can find in Episode III.

I could go on.  The point is that this is good research material, and these notes have helped me create an “index,” of sorts, for that research.  It’s a wonderful series — Michael Palin’s wit, the stunning cinematography, and even the tension felt as they try to make it to each successive stage of the journey are all as entertaining the tenth or eleventh time you’ve watched these videos as the first.  Yet, as I’ve shown, it’s still research.

Incidentally, you might want to remember that (in the United States, at least) writers (and artists; there’s plenty of good research material for artists, too) can take the money spent acquiring research materials off on their taxes (disclaimer: I am not a tax advisor, so check your local statutes).  So, you might want to go ahead and purchase your own copy of Around the World in 80 Days — and the other Michael Palin travelogues — today.