A few months out of college, longtime friends Chris Rufo and Keith Ochwat decided that the workaday world wasn’t for them. So they picked up and headed to Mongolia to shoot a travel documentary, an eight-week journey that had the pair trying to track down a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders in the Siberian taiga, drinking bowls of yak vodka at a traditional Mongolian wedding ceremony and going head-to-head with an Olympic wrestler. After returning to the States, the pair spent the next year editing film and pitching their show to TV stations across the country. Their hard work paid off: “Roughing It: Mongolia” was picked up by PBS over the winter and is scheduled to air nationally this summer. (Click here for your local listings.)
The pair traveled light (just the two of them and a camera) and focused on finding off-the-beaten-path travel experiences and meeting “the most compelling characters in the most compelling contexts.” Though the program is less polished than more established travel shows, it succeeds in capturing honest scenes with unique personalities—from a traditional throat singer to a fortune-teller who sees into the future with the aid of sheep knuckles. Since producer-director Chris and host Keith market their show on their ability to find authentic experiences and meet interesting people wherever they go, IT decided to pick up some travel advice from these 23-year-old globe-trotters.
How did you discover your love for “roughing it”?
Keith: Our first “roughing it”-type trip was the summer after our sophomore year of college. We were going to teach English together in the southeastern part of China, but the day we were set to depart we got a phone call from the program director, who said the school had been closed due to a food poisoning outbreak. Chris and I already had our visas, so we bought plane tickets and left a few days later and we roughed it across China, and that got us hooked. We’re both happy at home in America doing our own things, but that adventure really instilled in us this desire to rough it. Not just travel, not just spend a summer in Rome, or Paris or something, but really get off the beaten path and explore.
Chris: And we had a good chemistry on the road. Things fell into our laps that were absurd and adventurous and one of a kind. We made a cameo appearance in a Chinese rap video, we hitchhiked all through the Himalayas in the back of a dump truck, we went through the Three Gorges Dam right before everything got flooded. And we met really interesting people.
Follow the jump to learn why Chris and Keith don't actually hope you go to Mongolia, and to read their tips for authentic and sustainable travel.
How did you decide to leave your lives back home and go to Mongolia to film a travel show?
Chris: A couple months after college I was working in Cyprus and Keith
was studying [for the law school entrance exams]. Keith had called me at random, and we talked on the phone, and in five minutes we’d hatched the idea: let’s do a travel film together. I'd quit my job, he would stop studying, and we would go
do the Trans-Siberian Railway and make a movie about it. As we
researced it we got turned off from the whole Siberia part but really turned on to the Mongolia part, so that's the genesis of the idea.
You’ve said of your travels that “almost effortlessly, we met
fascinating people and found ourselves in fascinating situations.” Do
these amazing experiences really come that easily to you? Could anyone
have the kind of experiences you’re having, or does it take a certain
kind of person?
Chris: It’s not easy. You have to put yourself in a situation where things are going to happen to you, but you also have to be open to whatever happens. And it’s easier in smaller towns. In cities anywhere, people are busier, their heads are down, their headphones are in, and they’re trying to get to their next thing, but if you go out to the small communities, they’re just as fascinated with you as you are with them. And that opens a lot of doors, and makes it really easy to meet people and talk to them.
Keith: Be respectful, be courteous, and be genuinely curious about
someone else’s culture. I think people are flattered by that and if you
take an interest in them they’re willing to open up their lives and
introduce you to things that you would never find in a travel book.
You encourage people to get off the tourist trail and interact with locals. But if all travelers did that there would be nothing left “off the beaten path.” How do you reconcile authenticity with sustainability?
Keith: A lot of travel shows are meant to encourage viewers to visit the country and follow the path they're taking you on. But our mantra is really not that at all. Probably 90 percent of the people we show the film to say, ‘I really enjoyed watching that, but I would never go there, I would never want to do that. I would never want to drink yak vodka at a Mongolian wedding.’
Chris: It’s not so much that we want to encourage people to do exactly what we did. We’re doing it so viewers don’t have to. That’s why you watch a film, because you can go to Mongolia in 26 minutes and 46 seconds, instead of spending six, seven, eight weeks in Mongolia, if you went at all. We’re giving people an express pass to adventure.
Keith: And sustainability is part of the formula for our success, because we were able to have a really small footprint and be less intimidating and intrusive. Our production team was just us two. Because we can fit in one car and we can travel places without a big, intimidating crew, we can get a candid a response from people, and a clearer view into their culture than if you’ve got lights, camera, and sound equipment. We did that consciously, because we wanted to be able to sneak in and out and witness things without being too intrusive.
How do you suggest travelers have these kind of authentic, interactive experiences without becoming a burden to the people who are hosting them?
Chris: Most people are fundamentally uninterested in anyone else, so the second you show any kind of interest in another person, they’re going to love it, and you won’t be a burden. You’re saying, ‘Look, we think your life is not only important but interesting and it’s a story worth telling’, and that’s really, really powerful. You show interest and genuine enthusiasm, and at that point it’s not difficult to get to know them.
Do you have any other tips for travelers who are going out to meet people and have authentic travel experiences?
Chris: The number one thing in my point of view is to have a reason for traveling. So many people just don’t seem interested in what they’re doing. What helps you get through the tough times, the slow times, is to have a goal so that you always continue to push yourself. It can be photography, a journal, a scrapbook, whatever, just having a project or a goal will push you to get out there and get over being timid, or scared, or pessimistic about what you’re doing.
So can I come on your next trip?
Chris: Can you operate a camera?
Do you have any parting thoughts for us?
Chris: I hope if we have any kind of impact, first we inspire people to travel, but also we inspire younger people to say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to get this kind of job, or slave as something or other.’ You can do it. If you make your sacrifices and work hard and you have a little talent you can do it. It’s going to be tough, but just go for it.
Next up for the duo is “Roughing It: The Great Pacific,” an eight-part series which will “take viewers to a place that has done better than virtually anywhere else in the world at fending off Western influence.” The preliminary itinerary includes Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor. The series is tentatively set to air in late 2009. But for now, look for “Roughing It: Mongolia” on your local PBS station this summer, or check out the link below for a sneak peak.
Photos by Colin Legerton