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APRIL 17 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15

The Wright Guy For a Lonely Planet
By DAFFYD RODERICK

Chances are, Ian Wright has been in your living room.

As the impish presenter of Lonely Planet's travel series on the Discovery channel, Wright holds one of the world's most coveted jobs. In the past six years, he has traveled to more than 40 countries, scaled walls of vertical ice in New Zealand, slept in a yurt in Mongolia, ridden a horse through Himalayan passes and explored the Andes. And all this on company time.

The 34-year-old Englishman knows just how lucky he is. "It's outrageous," Wright says by phone from his London home. "If some lunatic is going to go on paying for it, I'll keep doing it. I'm surprised they haven't caught me out yet." Life before the television series was considerably different. "I had a job in a community center, doing arts and crafts with kids and working in the coffee shop," says Wright. A friend saw a newspaper ad for the presenting job and urged him to apply. "I thought, yeah, I'll make a little showreel, just as a joke." The demonstration tape depicted him being beaten up trying to change money on the black market, sitting on the toilet discussing the impact of the rich foods of London and finally being arrested and dragged away by immigration officials for interrogation. The folks at Pilot Productions loved it.

One of the first places they sent him was Morocco, a country he despised because he had been mugged on a previous visit. (Luckily, it was a Moroccan mugging. "The great thing about Morocco is that even when you're being robbed, you can haggle the price down," says Wright. "I got a discount.")

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Wright travels with a production team of four, which surprises travelers who recognize him on the road. "People think it's just me and the magic camera, because it looks like that. But that's showbiz, I guess," he says. "Then they see me in person and say, 'He's so short and old.' So overall, it's a pretty disappointing experience for them." Each episode takes more than three weeks to film, condensing into a one-hour time slot an itinerary that would take four months. While it may look like a glamorous job, the days can be long and, since it is under the no-frills Lonely Planet label, the lodging rough.

Even with non-stop travel and dubious food, Wright rarely gets ill. "I'm surprised that I haven't gotten anything more severe than the runs," he says. "I eat terribly before and after the program so I guess my body just doesn't know the difference." With few countries out of the grasp of the backpacker brigade, Wright sometimes questions the wisdom of drawing even more travelers into underdeveloped countries to gawk at the locals and bargain for handicrafts. "Sometimes in poorer places, like Madagascar, I feel: 'Oh man, we should not be here.' Tourism is such a double-edged sword, people need the money and they are bending over backwards for you to come, but I feel like a bit of a colonial." Wright has just returned from Cambodia, which he loved, but worries that a massive influx of visitors in search of banana pancakes won't do much for the country.

On the upside, he takes many viewers places they would never go and lets them experience the warmth of people they will never meet. "Hopefully when I'm messing about with people and we're having a laugh and it comes across in a certain way, viewers who haven't a clue about places like Cuba or Ethiopia, suddenly just go, 'Yeah, well bloody hell, they're just the same as us.'"

Wright's advice to travelers is to relax and have fun, as he does on the show. Some people get so stressed out by the poverty that they compensate by being way too polite, he says, which can come off as snobbish. "At the end of the day there's a common sense of humor that everyone can relate to. Everyone loves a fart joke."


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