Hold me down! I’m big-time digging Jeff Schroeder’s Around the World for Free on CBS.com. Some of it has been slightly canned, like the plugs for American Airlines (a sponsor), but the majority of it is killer stuff. Anyone who backpacks will recognize what he’s going through right now as he tries to make it around the world without spending any money, instead relying on the generosity of the people who are following the trip online, like an open-palmed version of the Travel Channel’s dearly departed 5 Takes. Although the series’ conceit seems like a stunt, it takes a special traveler not to make an actual stunt out of it.
As a not-so-closet fan of Big Brother, I watched Schroeder last summer, and I grew to appreciate his demeanor, his almost childlike joy for seemingly trivial stuff, and the respect he has for other people. Reality television players can be unabashedly self-serving, but Jeff wasn’t. He was the frat boy who cared. I watched the Big Brother live feeds, which expose players every minute of the day, and his character held up — when he had momentary lapses, he instantly recognized his failings and made up for them.
This summer, as he does this trip, I have grown to appreciate him even more. He’s bushy-tailed and peppy, and what he lacks in eloquence (most stuff is either “amazing” or “awesome”) he makes up for in enthusiasm and empathy. He’s unfailingly polite, hungry to learn, and is good at anticipating his audience’s questions. Two weeks ago, Schroeder served for a day with a People for Care and Learning, a humanitarian group that delivers water purification devices to floating villages in one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.
In this segment, from a week ago, he’s stranded in Pakse, Laos. He’s not allowed to spend money, but he needs $18 for a bus fare. Begging for cash in a poor place like Laos would be highly unsavory. I seem to remember another show from about 10 years ago that was built on just such a premise — strand the players, see how they get home — and it turned me off. But that’s not how Schroeder is handling things. He’d rather go thirsty than be a burden on the locals.
This clip brings me a flood of powerful travel memories: the heat of a Southeast Asian village’s streets, the benign language barrier, that unique feeling of wandering aimlessness paired with the traveler’s faith that everything will turn out just fine. And what backpacker hasn’t found himself struggling to find a Wi-Fi signal, peering in the windows of the fancy hotels?
“I don’t want to mooch off anybody. That’s not why I signed up,” Schroeder says.
He doesn’t have a production team to put words like that in his mouth.
He made it out. Today, he’s in Bangkok battling some tummy trouble, and he appears to have been reunited with the prodigiously talented videographer and editor named Zsolt Luka (I wouldn’t give Luka’s daily edit-and-recharge demands to a monkey on a rock) who accompanies him much of the time and whom I have to assume is equally responsible for the spirit of this endeavor.
Schroeder is making this odyssey not about himself, but about the people he meets, and that’s clearly by design and not by accident. So many other mass-media travel diary projects are about the ego of the traveler, but against the odds and the currents of the genre, Schroeder always puts the spotlight on the people he meets. He’s both amazing and awesome. You can follow Schroeder’s adventure (videos, photos, tweets), throw him tips, or offer him help on his next leg by going to CBSAroundtheWorld.com. There are also videos on YouTube.
Major praise to CBS for accomplishing this series with so much sensitivity. And since it’s the sponsor, I guess I should tip my hat to American Airlines, too.