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Why is the CNN News I watch overseas so much better than the watery slobber they show in America?

By Patrick Smith

Published September 5, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

My thanks to those of you who endured my philosophizing from Borneo without thinking even once about Ted Kaczynski.

Without meaning to launch into another eco-rant, I'd like to respond to those who've remarked, as people always do, that my rain forest excursion must have been remarkably sticky, bug-ridden and uncomfortable. Mention of the tropical jungle (or, to use the more p.c. term, rain forest) inevitably brings to mind two things: heat and bugs -- the proverbial "steamy jungle" and all its frightening discomforts. A Vietnam vet who hauled 60 pounds of gear through the bush might recall differently, but in fact rain forest weather is quite pleasant. Heat and humidity are high, but never extreme, flora and fauna existing in a kind of self-regulating equilibrium. Such is the beauty -- everything in balance, with no overabundance of a particular species. That includes insects. Large (or malarial) they can be in certain exotic exceptions, but their volumes are kept in check. Five treks now on four continents, and I can count the number of mosquito bites I've suffered on one hand. Ten minutes in the Maine woods and I'd be stung to oblivion.

Borneo, along with the Amazon basin and parts of the Congo in central Africa, contains the last surviving stronghold of tropical forest in the world. Yet even here it exists only in diminishing stands, steadily bought up by Chinese timber companies or converted into cheap farmland. (Rain forest soil is actually very poor, and many of the farms yield a limited harvest before they're abandoned.) From the plane you can see expansive logged-out tracts, the land reduced to stretches of what looks like desert; rivers and coastlines, sometimes far from the forests themselves, mustard-colored with silt and runoff. You don't get a sense of the damage until you view it from the air, though what I saw over Borneo didn't look as awful as what I saw over central Panama from an Aeroperlas commuter plane in 2000 -- vistas of devastation that literally reached the horizon.

On Borneo, Malaysia has cordoned off some protected parks and introduced selective, sustainable logging. In the Indonesian portion of the island the situation is less hopeful. Millions of hectares are annually clear-cut for timber and burned. In 1999 Indonesian forest fires burned out of control and created what some have called the 20th century's biggest environmental catastrophe. Southeast Asia became covered by a thick pall of smoke that caused airport closures as far away as Singapore. I remember reading stories about birds, bats and insects that became disoriented in the smoke and drifted hundreds of miles out to sea. Sailors were startled to see huge flocks, desperate for food and water, landing randomly on ships in the open ocean.

Anti-environmentalists love to accuse the other side of harboring a "plants before people" bias that, in their minds, undermines our dominion over nature. This is the main reason so many Christian fundamentalists despise eco-activists. In truth, and as any savvy conservationist will remind you, humanity and the rest of the natural world are codependent. If you're not sure why you should give a damn about the decimation of tropical foliage, it affects the planet in several ways, none of them particularly helpful to people or animals. It destroys habitats, kills off and isolates countless species, and is slowly but surely eliminating the richest and most varied concentration of life to be found. Moreover, the burning of forests results in a kind of candle-at-both-ends nightmare of carbon dioxide. Fewer trees remain to absorb the climate-altering gas, while the burning of the trees itself releases thousands of tons more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So see it while you can.

In the end I survived five days in the equatorial woods and more than two weeks in three different Islamic countries, touching down in Newark, N.J., without a single shrapnel wound, tropical disease or leech bite. Many readers were surprised that I'd chosen to visit Bali, but on the island's tranquil and exotic north coast worries of terrorism were about as nonexistent as snowstorms.

Meanwhile I have nothing but nice things to say about the service and punctuality of Malaysia Airlines. My jaunt through Dubai, Borneo, Bali and back involved 10 separate Malaysia Airlines flights, from 13-hour transoceanics to 50-minute domestic hops. All 10 of those flights arrived and departed precisely on time, or, in several cases, early.

On the three-hour leg between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Denpasar, Bali, I was astounded to count five cabin attendants aboard the 737-400, a jet with seating for fewer than 150. But even more striking: What's that strange silver glint coming from my tray, flashing in my eyes as I enjoy a view of Singapore? Why, it's an actual stainless-steel butter knife! Cheers to the clear-thinking Malaysians, who must defer to TSA ridiculousness on routes to and from Newark and Los Angeles, hiding the metal cutlery when the Americans come to dinner. "Please note that due to safety and security regulations," states the inside cover of the economy class menu, "plastic cutleries [sic] may be on occasions be [sic] provided instead of our normal silver/stainless steel ones."

Give them credit, they're trying.

Alas, I was just about to type that Malaysia appears both an airline and a country that really has its act together, when I came across some comments from the nation's prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. In a fresh copy of the New Straits Times, Mohamad, speaking from a conference in Damascus, unloads a litany of bizarre Jewish conspiracy rhetoric. "Today, [in] the US government, many of the members of Congress are Jews," explains Mohamed. "If they are not Jews, their staff members are Jews. So by controlling the Press and media, controlling the money through banking, and controlling now the Congress, they have become the power in the United States."

Oh. Just what a nation of impressionable young Muslims needs from its head of state. Perhaps I missed more of this mongering when I was back in Dubai.

I greatly enjoyed Dubai, incidentally, and found the Arabs extremely gracious and polite, though I don't know if I can describe how it felt to swim in the Persian Gulf, where according to the hotel bulletin board the seawater temp had hit 35 degrees C. That's just about 95 for Fahrenheiters. I have been to some hot countries, but I have never, ever, felt anything like the midday scorch of Dubai in August. The splash from a 95-degree Persian Gulf wave was akin to having warm syrup poured over your shoulders.

Overheated, I retired to my room and tried to decipher the headlines on Al Jazeera. The most I could make out was the occasional, vaguely derisive "Bush," until I switched to CNN. And that's when the frustration really set in.

It never ceases to amaze and exasperate me how incredibly different -- and by that I mean intelligent and provocative -- foreign-aired CNN is from the one we see at home. It's at least as good as the BBC's news. Watching from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, one is able to see high-quality reportage free of the watery slobber that passes as headlines here in the States -- the latest heart-tug tragedy of a missing child, indulgent Hollywood profiles, and our daily dose of hysteria from Homeland Security. While not yet matching Fox in its lowest-common-denominator appeal, here's this huge and highly respected network that cannot even show its best product to the home audience for lack of interest.

It's shameful and embarrassing to explain to a foreigner that no, the CNN shown in his country is not the same as ours because Americans, ensconced in our gated community of a nation, are too uninterested in the rest of the world, even as our tentacles of might and power slither into the very marrow of most of it. We are dangerously comfortable, half-asleep in our easy chair of influence and oblivion.

This is what happens, maybe, when a country is at once inordinately young and wealthy. Like overgrown adolescents we bully around with no real understanding of the world at large. Too young to have developed any true culture, our chief exports are the crass diversions of mass entertainment and the gluttony of corporate profiteering: McDonald's, Madonna, Mobil and Microsoft. Our friends overseas, often with longer histories and richer contributions of their own, greet us with limited respect and patience.

And if Americans are surprised to learn what's showing on CNN in Shanghai, São Paulo or Sofia, that's partly because we aren't there to watch. Anybody who's traveled beyond the safety zones of the Caribbean and Western Europe knows the relative rarity of the American abroad. By contrast, citizens of Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere, known for wanderlust (and frequently armed with a surplus of vacation time), are regulars to the far corners of the planet -- hiking the Himalayas, hacking through the tangle of the Amazon basin.

During my swings through foreign countries I routinely come across guest books -- in lodges, temples and other tourist spots -- whose entries reveal the identities and nationalities of recent visitors. It's always the same: page after page of Brits, Swedes, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians. Sometimes not a single American name is to be found in the book. When I spent a week in a lodge in Ecuador a few years ago, the staff was delighted to discover two separate groups from the States in attendance simultaneously, a departure from the normal deluge of Europeans. Ecuador, a good 11 hours from most E.U. countries, is about four from Florida.

I've had colleagues -- airline pilots in some cases -- who had no idea what the capital of Spain is. I knew a man who repeatedly referred to the residents and language of Thailand as "Taiwanese," while another found no important distinction between Israel and India, referring to a Jewish coworker as "Indian" and bristling with annoyance when his mistake was pointed out. Each of these offenders was a college-educated U.S. citizen.

But Americans too, at least until recently, were vacationing in record numbers. Where do we flock? To the drive-through safaris of Florida. To the world of Disney and its fiberglass replications of distant places. Why spend 10 hours on a plane when Epcot will do? Or Las Vegas, with its make-believe Luxor and scale-model New York skyline.

When we do break out the passport, usually it's a trip to Britain, Italy, Spain or France. We perceive it's easier and somehow less threatening to stick with our NATO allies than venture into countries where skin is darker and tap water best avoided. Frankly, having been to about 50 countries now, I find just the opposite to be true. Most developing countries are very easy for the tourist to handle; and you'll endure less hassle navigating around a city like Kuala Lumpur than, for instance, a metropolis like Paris. Hotels and food are cheap, and getting around is a cinch. Need a taxi across town? It'll run you a few dollars. Need a driver or a last-minute tour guide for a day trip, just say the word and nine guys are lined up and bidding for your services. Turkey, Peru, Egypt, Malaysia -- everywhere it's the same, not to mention more exotic, more interesting, and often cheaper to fly to. For the cost of going to Europe you can see the ancient ruins of Turkey, the splendor of Machu Picchu, or the Taj Mahal.

Surely it's unkind to begrudge a family taking its kids to Disney World or spending a long weekend in the Keys. This is a vast nation with plenty to see. But not at the expense of more valuable experience, or, worst of all, in a kind of xenophobic defiance.

Recent events have us reevaluating our place in the world, and if our preoccupation with war and terrorism are good for anything, maybe it's a heightened awareness of where, literally, we stand as Americans. In an era when an alarming number of us can't find Africa on a map, geopolitics might do the job where education has failed.

In the months before schoolkids, soldiers and politicians dusted off their Rand McNallys to locate places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, CBS's "Survivor" was probably the closest thing to an atlas many Americans consulted. And while the show certainly took hits from the critics, it wasn't the castaway cast's willingness to make a spectacle of itself that I found most offensive, nor our voyeuristic tendencies to indulge them. Instead, the series demonstrated our geographic illiteracy to embarrassing new heights.

The first "Survivor," as I mentioned in last week's dispatch from Malaysia, was set on a small tropical island off the coast of Borneo. A stretch of Arizona desert or a patch of Appalachia would have served just as well, but obviously the producers intended to create a kind of faux-exotic atmosphere. On the face of it, traveling to Asia was a great opportunity to introduce some faraway culture and geography to millions of viewers, but they instead opted for overt phoniness. For starters, Pulau Tiga rests only about five miles off the coast and a mere 30 miles from Kota Kinabalu, home to 200,000 people and its own international airport. So much for remoteness. Tiga itself, otherwise visually unremarkable, needed some props and affects. Rather than exploit any of the island's geographically correct aspects, which might have included some tangible bits of Malay culture, the crew imported tiki torches. Tiki torches are Polynesian, not Malaysian. No big deal, you think, except that the islands of Polynesia are as far from Pulau Tiga as Romania is from New York. How about filming in Colorado, with Viking hats and longboats thrown around as props?

Then it got worse. CBS subtitled the first sequel, "Survivor - the Australian Outback... The cast had gone Down Under, and thus we should have found the contestants in the vast expanse of open dryness that separates the two coasts of the Australian continent. The Outback -- parched land, Ayer's Rock, stretches of arid brown interior. Tuning into the opening credits, however, you were treated to tropical lizards, pythons and lots of water. What is this? Keep watching and it's soon apparent that the entire show is set against a tropical backdrop. An Outback oasis? No, it's the Australian rain forest in northern Queensland, several hundred miles -- and 180 degrees in terms of both flora and fauna -- from anything that might be construed as the Outback proper. No matter. The Outback? Isn't that, after all, just some place in Australia? It sounds good, and nobody will know the difference anyway. Why not set the next run in Death Valley, but actually do the shooting in the Everglades?

Whether you call it arrogance or ignorance, our country's failure to manifest a working knowledge of world geography results in a dangerous form of isolationism. Echoing the comments I made earlier, a German photographer I met in Morocco expressed it like this: "I do not understand your country. For a nation that controls so much of the world, its citizens seem to have little understanding or perception of it." That's a bold indictment, but one containing a large and consequential element of truth. Who can deny that any long-lasting leadership, whether political or economic, is dependent on a fundamental grasp of geographic and cultural realities?

Collectively, as an industrial and economically powerful entity, Americans are intelligent and innovative, but often only in the closed-circuit, shortsighted goals we set for ourselves. The rest of the world is looking in, and preparing itself with a comprehensively indoctrinated worldview. In the schools of Dresden, Germany, and Singapore, the children know longitude from latitude, Occident from Orient, and Thailand from Taiwan. In and of itself, such knowledge won't help anyone design better computers or become better brain surgeons, but a narrow, relentlessly inward focus will result in both greater susceptibility to, and less respect from, our competitors, friends and enemies. It may not be popular to regard geographic literacy as a bellwether for a nation's abilities, but surely it is critical to our standing in the world, and will influence and legitimize our contributions to it.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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