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Empire of fun

ABC led off its Saturday newscast during the Memorial Day weekend with a telling item. After praising how much Americans like the romance of getting away, the segment switched tone and offered a downbeat survey of how clogged the highways were and how long the lines were at airports. "Suckers," the segment screamed, "but at least you had a lot of company."

I was reminded of Morley Safer, at his peevish best, during a "60 Minutes" segment in which he whisked viewers from Rome to Paris to London at the height of August. First he showed us the sweltering, ill-tempered throngs of Ugly Americans and then snidely suggested how it would be so much better if everyone had stayed home.

The only problem is that home is Dullsville, baby. And youth, with a wanderlust born of curiosity and angst, can’t help but hit the road to all points exotic. But going far does not necessarily mean leaving the American way behind. MTV, with trademark shallowness and arrogance, offers us "Road Rules," a travel show testifying to the dark genius of its global cultural conquest. A recent episode featured a pack of hammerheads living it up on a cruise, ostensibly part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea. Frat house will travel, platinum cards and daddy’s lawyer’s cellular telephone number at the ready!

Soon we shall have The Beach, the much-anticipated feature starring Leonardo DiCaprio, based on a cult novel of the same name. Thanks to Mr. DiCaprio’s pull with the polka-dot panty set, the trailers are promoting the film as a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Blue Lagoon. Too bad, because the plot, despite its clichés, is quite insightful on the current "headspace" of nomadic youth.

A young British gent is set upon in a dingy Bangkok hostel by a whacked-out backpacker who, just before he expires, passes on a map detailing a mysterious island. Curiosity piqued, our hero hooks up with a French couple and together they journey against the currents of fate toward plot point No. 2. What they discover is a commune of Gen-Xers living the good life on an idyllic beach. The new arrivals quickly fall into the groove of the scene. Yet all is not well. Cliques form and rivalries brew, particularly over the luscious French girl who relishes her femme fatale powers of destruction. Also complicating matters is a rogue band of Thai commandos, weary of pimply interlopers fouling up their clandestine pot-growing swindle.

Even though the kids pine for an authentic travel experience far removed from pop culture dross, their life in paradise is rife with the stuff, including GameBoys, trivia mania and a bedtime ritual copped from "The Waltons." In his delightful book, Video Night in Katmandu, Pico Iyer points out with extreme prescience that no longer can we dream of visiting an unspoiled paradise on the other side of the world because paradise is as spoiled as the pilgrims in search of it.

This dark irony should not escape any viewer of the "Lonely Planet" travel series, available on the Travel Network. "Lonely Planet" started out as a hippie outfit in the early ’70s peddling travel guides to fellow dropouts and adventurers, filled with inside skinny about rock-bottom accommodations and offbeat opportunities to "go native." As its reputation grew, so too did its ambition.

Ambition, however, is a servant of the times. The "hook" of "Lonely Planet" lies in its pre-Internet, pre-MTV roots, when one could trek on a budget and still think of the world as a big, undiscovered place. Thus, the show’s attempt to be a bit coquettish in recognition of the ubiquity of information technology and mass media. In the strategically retro universe of "Lonely Planet," Earth still has exotic places to be visited.

The hip component comes from the guides, photogenic 20-somethings from the industrialized countries of the world. On one program, a young Indo-Anglo vixen does a tour of Spain. During part of the journey, she is squired by a local gent, immaculately preppie, driving a hot red convertible through the old cities of the Moors. Later, she walks the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago de Compostela, culminating in the annual religious festival where thousands of European kiddies gather to get loaded and shag. The sacred and the profane, indeed.

The real star of the series, though, is Ian Wright, an impish Brit seemingly game for anything he encounters on the road. No creature comforts for our lad. He roughs it and he likes it. In that sense, he inspires a Martha Stewart envy in his many fans – if only we could travel like Ian, wouldn’t it be terrific!

Wright, perpetually upbeat and friendly, is the exact opposite of the xenophobic British lager lout feared and loathed across the European continent. His enlightened attitude is very much a throwback to the great British explorers of yore, including, most recently, the inimitable Bruce Chatwin. More importantly, he is a beacon of hope to the young traveler: Paradise is not lost when your head – if not your feet – is able to find it. The ultimate destination of any trip, Ian shows us, is to a planet less lonely yet still a wonder.

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