Is riding a reindeer across Siberia on your travel bucket list? How about visiting the last man living in the radioactive zone in Chernobyl? Or uncovering sunken ships and wreckage of World War II planes in the Pacific Ocean?
Canadian TV host and adventurer Scott Wilson (above) has done all these things and more on the television series, Departures – an internationally acclaimed travel show that captures the journey as much as the destination.
A lot of us talk about quitting our jobs to travel full-time, but Scott actually did it. Before the age of 30, he left behind his life in Brantford, Ontario to shoot the TV series with co-host and high school buddy, Justin Lukach, and co-creator/cameraman, Andre Dupuis. Over three seasons, the trio filmed their adventures across 7 continents and produced a Gemini award-winning television show.
Like many other fans, I followed Scott, Justin, and Andre as they travelled to places that I had never considered visiting – like Greenland, Libya, or Ethiopia – but now marvelled at through my television screen. Through Dupuis’ camera lens, each episode showcased some gorgeous cinematography that portrays life as it happens – raw, real, and beautiful.The Departures team even filmed episodes in the less visited Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Antarctica.
I sat down with Scott to talk about his new TV series Descending, his latest adventures, getting his pilot’s license, and his advice on why travellers should embrace discomfort on the road. Keep reading for the full interview:
Eat Drink Travel Magazine (Lisa Jackson): You’ve just finished airing your first season of your new show, Descending. Why is it so important to show viewers the underwater world?
Scott Wilson: TV shows that follow individuals underwater tend to be people like Dr. Robert Ballard and other top oceanographers, or record-setting divers. We felt like there was a huge gap for those of us who will never get there. We wanted to show that if you want to do this, you can. It was the same approach with Departures – we’re normal, everyday guys, and if we can do it, then anyone else who wants to do it, can do it as well.
Lisa: What’s been your most memorable diving experience so far? If you can choose, that is.
Scott: I really gravitate towards the cold water dives. So diving in British Columbia, we did a show there. Diving in Iceland, that really stuck with me. Even diving here at home in the Great Lakes. You really don’t have to go far away to the opposite end of the earth to have absolutely mind-blowing world class diving. We’ve got it right here in our own backyard. There’s something about cold water diving – getting the gear on, getting a dry suit on, feeling like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – and getting in the water and then being rewarded for braving the cold. I’ve always gravitated towards those.
A close second to me was the dive in the Solomon Islands, retracing the steps of the Second World War. I’m a history buff and I’ve always been interested in aviation. So diving on plane wrecks of the Second World War, I was just beside myself.
Lisa: Anyone who watches Departures knows that you’re a plane enthusiast. You recently got your pilot’s license, so congratulations on that.
Scott: Thank you. That’s one of my bucket list items checked off for sure. Since I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I’ve really wanted to get my pilot’s license. I was in Air Cadets as a young guy and that passion for aviation continued on. I spent many hours playing Flight Simulator on my computer, so to finally make that dream happen was huge for sure.
Lisa: What motivated you to finally learn to fly and how was that experience for you?
Scott: While filming in a remote part of Indonesia, I was on an Ultra Light that crashed into the ocean. Swimming out of that plane wreck and floating around on the water’s surface waiting to be rescued, I was thinking, “As soon as I go home, I’m getting my pilot’s license. That’s the last straw – from here on in, I’m going to be the one in control of the plane.” So that was a last catalyst to drive me to finally get it done.
The process itself was phenomenal from the get go – learning all the fundamentals in Ground School, and then starting to actually get up in the plane. Your first solo flight is always so monumental. It was really neat to be challenged like that again. It was something different, something new to challenge me at home for a change, as opposed to the challenges out on the roads.
Lisa: What’s one of the most unique dishes or drinks that you’ve had on your travels?
Scott: When you say drink, what definitely comes to mind was being in Mongolia. We were crossing a lot of wide open space in the North, driving in a Soviet-era van that overheated and needed constant attention. Every so often, we’d pull over at a creek to get water to fill the rad, and occasionally, pull up to a ger (a Native-style tent).
The driver would knock on the door – sometimes in the middle of the night – to ask for some water for the rad. Someone would wake up and hand over some water to get us on our way again. It just amazed me that that’s how the culture was there. They depend on each other, so it didn’t matter if you’re a complete stranger – if you need help, you got it.
Well, one time, we stopped over at a ger and they welcomed us right in. The family’s daughter had just been married, and they were still on day two of a several day celebration. One of the gers was highly decorated inside, and there was fermented yak’s milk – which is a traditional alcohol. It’s in this pail and it looks like milky water. So they take this large glass that probably hasn’t been washed once since the day it was made, scoop some alcohol off the top, and fill the glass. And this was a full-sized, large juice glass.
We don’t want to disappoint anyone, so we take a little sip. It tastes like something you’d find under the sink. It was jet fuel basically. We’d take a little sip and then choke it down and pass it onto the next person. But our hosts are like, “No, no, no!” They’re making the hand gesture like – drink up, bottoms up! I’m like – you’ve got to be kidding me, you want me to drink this whole thing that’s gotta be like 60% alcohol?!
But you don’t want to disappoint, so we all chugged it down. Of course, as soon as you chug it, they refill it right to the brim again to be a good host. So we were just getting smashed before our eyes. I think it was half tradition, and half just let’s just see how drunk we can make the foreigners. Justin figured out if he hid the glass, then they couldn’t find it to refill it. He found little ways around it without insulting anyone. That would certainly be one of the more interesting drinks that I’ve had.
Lisa: We’ve all visited a place where we bond with people and surroundings, and feel a strong connection to a country or culture. Do some places feel inexplicably like home? What’s that place for you and why?
Scott: One place that’s always felt like home for me is New Zealand. I think culturally, it’s very similar [to Canada]. They’re a Commonwealth country and based on the same government stature. But well beyond that, it’s just the attitude of the people and their kindness. Even the smells – you leave Canada in the winter and you arrive in New Zealand in the summer. After being that jetlagged, I’ll get picked up from my buddy Ellis and be driving back to his place, passing in and out of sleep against the car window and feeling that summer wind. It’s almost like I’m dreaming that I’m home – it’s the same sounds and smells of a late August afternoon, with crickets and the smell of fresh cut grass and farms. So there’s always been a real connection for me with New Zealand.
When you’ve been to a place a number of times, it starts to feel like home. Poland always feels like home to me as well, because I have family there. There are plenty of other countries that have found a special place in my heart, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they feel like home the way that those other countries do.
Lisa: In season 3, the Departures team visited countries that have been negatively portrayed in the media – such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Can you talk about these trips and why it was important to share these experiences with viewers?
Scott: Even from day one, we wanted to show places that weren’t necessarily on the beaten path. Places that were not so often thought about, and in some cases, ones with negative portrayals in the media. We wanted to give an honest and true portrayal of what we saw, what we experienced.
There have been some negative comments about our portrayal of North Korea. It wasn’t that we were trying to say this is what it’s like and there aren’t bad things that go on here. But I think everyone is aware of the bad things that do go on in North Korea and it was a matter of trying to humanize part of the population that is there. We’re so easily drawn in to all the negatives and those few bad apples that make the news and make a country fall under the so-called “axis of evil.” But in fact, the truth of the matter is that 99% of the people there are decent, good people and they want the same damn things as us. They want to put food on the table for their family and to leave a legacy. They want to see their kids live on in their name. It was always important for us to show that.
Sometimes, we intentionally went on the beaten path and then went back off it again. None of us had ever been to Cuba. But most red-blooded Canadians have been at one point in their life for a vacation and done the whole resort thing on the beach. We wanted to go to Cuba with the fresh eyes and potentially show it to people who’d been there many times before, but in a completely different light.
Luckily, we had wonderful trips. Libya and North Korea are some of my favourite episodes. We made connections with individuals instead of being responsible to portray an entire country. We’ll leave the news reporting up to CBC, CNN, and BBC. That wasn’t our mandate. We wanted show our experience during the two or three weeks we visited those places.
Lisa: I remember when Departures visited Cambodia, you participated in a ceremonial slaughter of a cow and subsequent feast with community members. Being a traveller means having to adapt to different cultures and customs. Were there times when you witnessed something and felt uneasy or uncomfortable? Did you learn anything from these experiences? Do you think it’s important to expose ourselves to these situations?
Scott: I think it’s an important part of the travel experience as a whole. Over the past four or five years of constant travel, I’ve taught myself that if I’m a little bit scared or uneasy, then I’m probably on the right track for getting a good experience. If things feel a bit too comfortable, then I don’t think I’m really experiencing all there is to experience. That’s not to say that I endorse people trying to get themselves into trouble. But I think there’s something about being uneasy when you travel – it means that you are legitimately starting to experience things that are different from your culture. That’s how we get a better grasp of who we are as a planet, as opposed to just individual countries.
The Cambodia moment was one where we were all very uncomfortable with what was going on there. We even debated whether it should go in the show – are we going to offend or upset too many people by doing that? Then we thought, we’re here and that’s what happened, so there’s no sense in leaving it out.
In the episodes about India, we filmed the cremation vats on the Ganges. In the show, I had said that it would be really easy to highlight how wrong this practice is under our eyes and under our cultural upbringing. But it’s even easier to just sit back and observe it as a fly on the wall and say, “This isn’t my place, this isn’t my home.” This is their home and this is the way that things have been done for hundreds if not thousands of years. So who am I to say that it’s wrong? It’s different, but it’s certainly not wrong. There are moments where you’re shocked by something, but then you realize you’re really learning something – and it’s tolerance and understanding. That’s a good thing for anyone to have.
Conversely to all of that, the last gasp of the Tamil Tiger attacks happened on our last day in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tiger rebel group actually had two or three planes in their possession that hadn’t been taken over or destroyed. They actually made a raid to shoot up the capital. We were outside on a patio at night, eating dinner in Colombo. At first, we thought it was thunder happening, but then we saw the sky light up with fire and we were like, “Holy shit, we’re in the middle of an attack here!”
We intentionally didn’t film that and left it out of the episode because we felt it was going to ruin an otherwise great trip and would give the wrong impression. We had just spent nearly a month there, and had met the most wonderful people, had the most incredible experiences, and felt unbelievably safe the entire time we were there. So we made the choice to leave out the attacks because we thought everything we had seen and shown would be undone with the first seconds of that video footage. It wasn’t fair to the country, it wasn’t fair to the people. That was the last of the attacks, and it would give an unfair view.
Lisa: When something like that happens, it often gets blown up as representing the whole country.
Scott: Exactly. It was going to be on every TV station around the world anyway. Why do we need to reiterate that story? It wasn’t like we were introducing anything new. From a TV show’s perspective, you have to make hard decisions about what the network and viewers want to see versus a bit of self-integrity and how true do you want to be to yourself, to your experience, and to the people that you’ve met. That won for us at that point. But certainly, those are the things you come across when you’re travelling, and you’ve gotta roll with the punches.
Lisa: Having travelled to so many places, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about our planet and people?
Scott: One of the most important things that I’ve learned so far and as I continue to travel, is that people are inherently good. Yes, we worship different idols, we believe different things, we do different jobs and do things in different ways. But everyone I’ve run into, they’re just interested in who you are, where you’re from, and what are you doing in my country? And oftentimes, in some of the places where you would least expect to be welcomed.
I remember walking around in Sudan and – shamefully, after years of travelling to places that fall under the “axis of evil” – still being a bit uneasy. What are people going to be like? Are they going to accept me or approach me? I’m walking around in Sudan, having people come up with smiles on their faces, saying “Hello! Hello!” They’re using whatever English that they know and trying to ask, Where are you from? They’re delighted that I’m actually there and showing an interest in their country.
We’ve had people stop and help us change tires. We’ve had people give us beds to sleep on and give us food. Many times, this is coming from people who, from a financial perspective, are far worse off than any of us are. That’s really humbling. So it gives me a really good picture of humanity. Obviously, you can turn on the news any day of the week and be horrified by what you see, and the bad things that we can do to one another. But the good news is that, from my experience thus far, there are just so many more good people than bad. It’s still a wonderful world out there.
Lisa: What advice do you have for readers who are contemplating a round-the-world trip, but aren’t sure where to start?
Scott: Make sure that you start somewhere slightly outside the comfort zone. You’ve got to be happy going where you’re going, but there’s something to be said about going outside your comfort zone to really take home an experience.
Even with my parents, I pushed them to finally leave the continent and go to Europe. As retirees without much international travel experience, I advised them not to just sit on a cruise ship or take the package tour. At least half of your trip, make sure you do it on your own. I told my parents, you’re able-bodied, you can walk, you can put a backpack on your back. Don’t be afraid of getting a bit lost, or being uncomfortable, or having to ask for help. My mum had asked me, “What do you do if no one speaks the language?” I was like, “You get by. You figure out a way.”
If you make things too easy for yourself, I think you’re potentially giving up so much more of the journey than before you even begin. So make sure that you’re not cheating yourself and that you’re taking a step outside of your comfort zone.