From the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
In his quest to find real culture, Riku Rantala often has to disregard good taste.
Video documentarian Riku Rantala travels the world to find extremes—in cultures, cuisines, and experiences. For his travel TV show, Madventures—a cult hit in his native Finland before making its U.S. debut on the Travel Channel last fall—he has choked down monkey brains, explored an abandoned radioactive city (Geiger counter in hand), searched for cannibals, and flagellated himself in a religious ritual. Rantala's goofy, self-mocking swagger is so entertaining that you forgive him for grossing you out with the sometimes repulsive footage that he, along with his sidekick, videographer Tuomas "Tunna" Milonoff, bring back from the field. "Today we're going to grub a popular west African roadside snack, Cricetomys gambianus, giant African pouch rat," he gleefully announces in one typical episode. "This creature is to locals what cheeseburger is to the Americans—big, fat, and yummy in the tummy!"
What is your TV show trying to accomplish? We believe you find real culture only when you get out of your comfort zone. We go way beyond our comfort zone to report on the most extreme parts of some cultures. Right now we're writing a new book, a sort of culinary adventure book based on the "MadCook" segments, which is the part of our show that gets the most response from viewers.
What are some of the most outrageous dishes you've personally sampled? Tunna and I like to play a game of "rock, paper, scissors" to see who will eat the dish and who will do the filming. But even when I win—and get to hold the camera—I still want to taste the dish. I'd say that monkey brain may have been the worst, also, placenta.
Anything closer to what people might consider eating? Well, of course, we've eaten worms, wasps—all different kinds of insects—and they're usually very tasty. In most cases, the insects are prepared the same way, cooked in oil with some spices. Insects usually turn out just as good as any other snack you might choose for Monday Night Football.
Describe some of your favorite segments of the show. One was our visit to the ghost town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which was evacuated three days after the meltdown at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The place is still radioactive, and you have to be quite careful. At the same time, it's fascinating to see what a modern city looks like after having been abandoned for 25 years.
Must be pretty spooky. Very. And when you consider that this large area will be uninhabitable for hundreds of years, you realize how big a disaster Chernobyl was. Another interesting aspect is the Soviet architecture. You see here how a Soviet city looked near the end of the Soviet Union.
Other segments of the show you especially like? To report on a cultural ritual, we believe we should take part in the ritual ourselves. In the Philippines, some Catholics perform penance rituals during Easter festivities. One is called flagellation, in which you whip your own back and walk a symbolic road to Calvary, barefooted. With temperatures startlingly hot, the asphalt on the road was unbearable to touch, not even considering the loss of blood. It meant a lot to me that I endured it. Tunna tried to push me into the even more extreme ritual of crucifixion. We interviewed some local guys who had done it ten or 15 years in a row—with real nails driven through their palms. But a doctor warned me of possible nerve damage. I decided that I'd done enough.
Have there been any segments that you decided were just too extreme to air? We had a very strange encounter with the Aghori sect in India. They are holy men who embrace unholy things, showing that all things are from God. They drink alcohol and smoke ganja. They drink their own urine and eat feces. I got into the action, too. A guy brought me a chicken and told me to drink the blood. But at a certain point, Tunna says, "Now, Riku, you're going too far. We can never show this."
How have all these extreme experiences changed you? I've learned that a single traveler can build understanding between different cultures. Every traveler is an envoy. People tend to fear each other, but exploring the other culture, even the hard-core parts, can demystify it and reveal common humanity. When we encounter something totally different from our own values, if we can withhold judgment, we can grow. You don't have to accept the foreign practice, but you can try to understand it.
Are there places you've visited that you hope tourists won't discover? Yes, many. During our last trip to Papua New Guinea, we visited a small village in the Morobe Highlands where few outsiders ever go. We filmed them singing and hunting. I tried on their traditional clothes. When it came time for us to leave, we had to give a speech to all 200 or 300 villagers. They told us that it meant a lot to them that we respected their culture and that we would come from a very far place just to see their daily lives. Of course, we learned that some still practiced cannibalism.
Maybe they wanted to eat you. No, they'll probably wait for my chubbier cousin to show up. Seriously, there is something called first-contact tourism, and it has to be done very cautiously, because these cultures are fragile. We had an excellent guide who knew the villagers well. But places like that are not suited for mass tourism.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.