Meet PBS's 'Savvy Traveler'
ET: You started out as a print reporter, and moved to include television and radio. Was this a hard transition?
RM: It was a fairly gradual transition, so I didn’t find it that difficult.
I began my professional journalism career at The Washington Post as a reporter right out of college, and while there—when I was about 27 years old—I was invited by the local NBC owned-and-operated, news/talk radio station to host a four-hour, Saturday morning talk show.
That was scary. I’d often been a guest on radio shows, but I’d certainly never hosted one. At the time WRC Radio was one of the most listened-to radio stations in DC, and it was, obviously, in a major media market. I’m sure I would have been more comfortable starting in a tiny market.
It took a few months to feel comfortable in the role, but then I began to enjoy it. So—many years later—when a new, national, public radio business show called “Marketplace” asked me to host a weekend show called “The Savvy Traveler” that grew out of several years of doing consumer travel commentary, it wasn’t exactly a new experience.
Hosting a television series, however, was a new thing, but as an investigative reporter in Washington for 22 years, I’d been on hundreds of television shows from the “Today Show” to a several-year stint as a gossipmonger on CNN and the Canadian TV network CTV. So I’d at least grown comfortable talking on camera.
ET: What do you like best about having a television series where you tell/show people about places they can visit?
RM: What gives me great satisfaction about hosting “Rudy Maxa’s World” is the number of people who approach me or write to me and tell me that one of my shows caused them to go somewhere.
Some travelers may find this difficult to believe, but many people are still wary of traveling. They think of airports as confusing obstacle courses, of a country where people speak a different language as an insurmountable problem, and foreign menus as utterly perplexing.
In my shows, I try to illustrate the accessibility of traveling to far-away places. And when someone tells me they visited a destination for the first time because they caught one of my shows, I’m a happy guy.
But I also stress that you can travel in your own hometown or your own mind. You don’t have to have a credit card to travel.
ET: Your travels have taken you to numerous places. What are your two most favorite places you've traveled to, and why?
RM: My theory, that I’ve repeated often, is that it’s someplace you discover later in life that often becomes a favorite place. I was an Army brat, and I lived twice in Europe as a kid. My parents took me and my brother on numerous trips around Europe—almost every weekend involved a car trip somewhere. So I became somewhat familiar with several countries there.
I didn’t get to Asia until I was maybe 34, when fellow travel journalist and buddy Peter Greenberg tipped me off to a travel junket arranged by Hilton to the company’s hotel in Hong Kong. And I was just blown away. That first night, as I stood alone on the open deck of the Star Ferry and looked at the skyline of Hong Kong with a full moon over Victoria Peak behind it . . . well, I was a goner.
So Asian countries—China, Japan, and Thailand rank among my favorite places. Now, if my father had been stationed in Asia, and I didn’t get to visit Paris or Rome or London or Amsterdam until I was in my 30s, I’d probably be telling you that somewhere in Europe was my favorite place.
Of course, I adore almost everywhere in Europe, so that is not to diminish in any way my affection for that fabulous continent.
ET: Can you tell us something humorous or funny that happened while you were filming for a television series?
RM: There are dozens of such moments. In Shanghai, I was preparing to do a stand-up on a pedestrian shopping mall. Almost immediately, hundreds of locals lined up to watch, obligingly moving back out of the picture when my producer asked them to. Soon there was a sea of spectators.
I delivered my lines while walking, and you would have thought I was Elizabeth Taylor doing a love scene. No one said a word. No one tried to wave at the camera or put their fingers in a “V” behind and over my head (which is a favorite sport in Italy, I found).
After several takes—and, of course, I doubt many in the impromptu audience knew what I was saying—my producer said, “OK, we got it,” and the crowed burst into applause.
Paris is difficult to shoot in. Local residents seem to resent television cameras. Once we were shooting a long shot down a broad avenue, and a restaurateur came running out of his restaurant half way down the block waving his arms and telling us to go away.
Then we went into the Metro to shoot a close up of my buying a multi-day Metro pass. It was meant to convey to the audience a way to save money while getting around town quickly. We had all the appropriate permissions from the city and the Metro folks to do this shot. But the woman selling tickets behind the counter covered her face and refused to sell me a ticket, waving us away.
I began to wonder if maybe half the residents of Paris might be in a witness protection program.
Another time, doing a stand-up in front of the convent in Milan where Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is painted on the wall of the refectory inside, I kept stumbling over my line, saying, “The Last Summer.” I must have made that mistake four or five takes in a row.
Finally, my frustrated cameraman, Tom Speer, growled, “If you don’t get it right this time, it will be your last summer!”
Only in retrospect does it seem funny that my producer, Sue McNally, got me to jump into the ocean in French Polynesia with scuba gear to frolic with sharks without telling me she was going to toss chum into the water once I was submerged.
And only in retrospect is it an amusing story when I describe riding a camel named Catherine in Khiva, a Silk Road town in Uzbekistan, without a saddle. After one take, Catherine had had quite enough of show biz, and she bucked violently, tossing me up into the air. Crashing down on a cobblestone street resulted in a broken right shoulder and a few stitches in my head.
ET: How many crew members do you need to film a show, and what do they do?
RM: Generally there are four of us: me, my producer, a cameraman, and a grip who doubles as a soundman. Sometimes we have a full-time sound guy and sometimes our associate producer joins, as well. It’s a very, very lean team.
ET: What have your travels told you about cultures, people, foods and lodging around the world?
It’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés are very true. I’ve learned everyone is proud of their culture, whether it’s a resident of Rome discussing the city’s architecture and history or the resident of yurt with one goat to his family’s name in Uzbekistan.
I’ve learned that most “regular” folks harbor very little ill will toward people of other countries. They may not like a particular government or some of its policies, but they distinguish between politics and people who wish to raise their children well and live a peaceful life—just as they do.
As for food, it’s a great reflection on a place, its history, and its culture. Lodging is less so, generally speaking, unless you’re in a rural area where accommodations might not have changed significantly through the decades.
ET: Given the economy today, do you believe leisure travel is on the decrease, remaining steady or on the rise?
During the last several years I would have answered this question more negatively. But as I write in November of 2012, there is no question that leisure travel is on the rise. Not just in the US, but also in newly-affluent countries such as Brazil. And, most of all, there are India and China, whose citizens are about to begin traveling the world in enormous numbers.
ET: Are you planning any new series, shows or books on travel?
RM: I’ve never written a travel book. When I was in my 20s I wrote two non-fiction books, and I know how hard it is to write a book.
I am always planning new television shows. As I write, we’re in final editing for six new shows that will be released in February 2013. That will make 92 episodes on public television in the U.S. (You can find all the shows on my television website, maxa.tv.)
And over the last several years, Travel Channel International has broadcast my most recent 20 episodes in 121 countries in 22 different languages. And it wasn’t easy learning 22 languages, believe me!
Then, each weekend, I interview eight to 12 guests for my syndicated radio travel show, also called “Rudy Maxa’s World.” It’s broadcast on 160 news/talk stations in the US as well as live on XM Radio’s Channel 165 every Saturday morning from 10:06 a.m. to noon, Eastern time. Or live and streaming at my radio show’s web site, rudymaxa.com, at that same time.
ET: How did growing up as a military brat affect your urge to travel?
There’s no question that imbued me with a love of travel. Growing up, I just presumed everyone moved every year or two to a new place because my family and all my friends did that. So I became very comfortable with meeting new people in new places all the time.
I think military brats either become eager travelers and extroverts, or they decide they don’t like that kind of transient life. It’s no surprise I’m in the former category.
And the frequent trips I referred to earlier—weekends and otherwise—certainly created an appetite for travel. Even though I was based in DC for my 13 years as an investigative reporter and personality columnist at The Washington Post and nine years as a senior writer at the city magazine called The Washingtonian, I found more excuses to travel out of town and abroad than your average, Washington-based reporter.
ET: What would you say to someone who wants to travel—and write about it—as a travel writer?
First of all, it’s more difficult than you think. Prepare by writing all the time, whether the topic is travel or not. Write a blog, write for your high school and college newspapers. Then read the masters of travel writing, from Paul Theroux to Bill Bryson to Mark Twain.
Note their attention to detail. The architect Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details,” and that applies to descriptive writing, as well. It’s not enough to remark that Notre Dame in Paris is impressive or imposing or beautiful. You’ve got to notice the intricate carvings on the cathedral’s front door or the man selling pretzels from the cart around the corner.
And you have to have the courage to ask questions, to never hold back from doing asking about what you don’t understand.
Then comes the most difficult part—telling a story as a narrative that holds a reader’s interest.
Having said all that, it’s very difficult to make a living as a travel journalist. I couldn’t do it just by writing. Newspapers and, increasingly, magazines that cover travel look for short stories and don’t pay well. (In fact, with only one or two exceptions, NO newspaper has ever paid well for travel articles.)
And while blogs—your own or someone else’s—provide a welcome opportunity to write and be published, once again, the pay is generally very, very low.
So to a hopeful travel writer, I’d say, make sure you have another way of paying the rent before embarking full time as a scribe.