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Who would have imagined that Michael Palin would have paved the way for The Amazing Race? The former Monty Python member undertook a daunting challenge from the BBC in 1988: do as Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg did in Around the World in 80 Days and… travel around the world in 80 days, obviously.
It would be much easier to do that today than in Fogg’s time, so there were some restrictions, most notably that Palin could only use transportation that would have been available when Fogg made his trip. While Palin does cheat – he drives a car across the entire Arabian desert – he sticks to the spirit of the rule, which keeps him from flying.
The rules make things much tougher for Palin than they were for Fogg; in Jules Vernes’ time you crossed the ocean on a ship; today it’s almost impossible for a casual traveler to cross the Pacific or Atlantic on nything but a plane. Palin ends up hitching rides on massive cargo carriers, and it’s the non-touristy transports that he takes, which include dhows and rickety ancient trains, that adds something really special to the show.
Palin begins the journey lamenting that traveling in the 20th century involves just going from airport to airport, and the beauty of the trip has been lost. Ironically, he doesn’t get as much time to soak things in as he might like – quite early on Palin falls behind schedule, and in the last two episodes is racing to make connections – but he does have opportunities to see amazing and strange things. He cleans garbage out of the canals of Venice and in India he gets shaved by a blind man. Crossing the Indian Ocean he turns an old man on to the joys of Bruce Springsteen. In Hong Kong he wins at the track, and when crossing the International Date Line he takes part in a weird and vaguely homoerotic naval tradition. In America he flies in a hot air ballon (something Fogg never did, despite it being a regular part of the mythology of Around the World in 80 Days) and travels by dog sled. At every stop Palin meets people who are sweet, kind, funny and strange. While he’s not bringing his hardcore Python silliness to the trip, Palin does have a wry sense of humor that can get more than a little biting when conditions are tough or when it seems like he might not make his final goal.
I fell in love with the series because it highlights my exact feelings about traveling: I love seeing new, foreign places and I kind of hate getting there. Watching Palin sweat in a barely ventilated subcontinental railroad makes me jealous – what an experience! To be traveling through the heart of India! – and happy that I’m comfortable at home. Some of the things that Palin sees has surely changed in the intervening decades, but I feel like the places he goes – the out of the way places, the places without luxury hotels – might look very familiar today to someone who watched the series.
Around the World in 80 Days With Michael Palin launched the Python into a new career as a travel host/writer. You can watch Around the World on Netflix’s Watch It Now – all seven episodes are available – and you can follow that up with Pole to Pole, where Palin travels from the North to the South Pole, again eschewing air travel.
Click here to watch (or queue) Around the World in 80 Days With Michael Palin on Netflix Watch It Now.