By his own words, Peer Jan Rind lives a humble life in the rural desert of Pakistan, a day’s drive from the major city of Karachi and its glittering coastline. His house is built of clay and stone, with few creature comforts that Westerners would recognize. Rind supports three children and his mother through contractual gardening jobs, eking out enough to comfortably feed them, but a life of true abundance remains a dream.
Rind is an unlikely figure to become a global darling on social media. And yet, somehow, he’s become exactly that. It all started when he appeared on a YouTube channel dedicated to reaction videos — specifically, reactions from Pakistani tribal villagers tasting new and exotic foods from America, Mexico, Japan and beyond. People noticed his knack for sharp observations and wry one-line punchlines, and in a matter of months, the positive attention around his personality rose to a convincing pitch.
Does having witty reactions to tasting Nutella and hash browns make for a successful YouTube career? Rind himself seems a little skeptical in new videos explaining his background and decision to create his own channel. But he’s just the latest figure in a wave of content creators, from Pakistan and all over the world, who are producing videos of life in their rural communities and finding an international audience ready to embrace them.
“Why is this guy so interesting? I’m from San Antonio, Texas. I live in a very different culture, different country, different language, but seeing him, he’s a brother,” writes one commenter. “I have respect for him.”
I couldn’t help but feel a similar way, watching videos of Rind extruding wheat noodles and cooking it over a wood fire, in a method I’d never seen before (even as a big student of noodles). There’s something so tangible and unadorned about videos that are produced by people who are native to the communities they film; there’s a sense of pride and identity that feels more immediate than if those same people were in a show made by the Travel Channel. During a time when travel influencers are stuck at home, pondering the ethics of getting back on flights to visit far-flung oases, it feels like a balm to watch content straight from the source, unfiltered through foreign perspectives.
The biggest shift in travel programming in the last 50 years has come through the voice and agenda of Anthony Bourdain, the chef turned TV star whose perspective realigned our cultural ideas of what to expect from a food and travel show. Bourdain seemed preternaturally aware of his privilege and role as messenger, making his respect and reverence clear no matter whether he was sitting in the three-Michelin kitchen of Paul Bocuse or at a fire in the African bush, eating unwashed boar rectum grilled over charcoal.
But two years after his death, no one has assumed his position as the same kind of guiding light in the zeitgeist. And in a post-Bourdain world, perhaps the best messenger is the one who has lived the life depicted on screen.
It’s not just Rind, whose channel only has four videos so far (but has logged 18,000 subscribers in a matter of weeks). There’s Jatt Movies, which depicts rural life in Pakistan in beautiful HD, but with little narration or editing. I love the videos from BattaBox, which highlights the lives of the street food vendors and scrappy cafe cooks who feed the working people of Nigeria. And I’m endlessly addicted to the videos from Artger, the Mongolian YouTube channel that highlights the diverse home cooking and lifestyles of rural villagers.
In one obvious way, this content is related to the highly produced, cinematic food porn made by YouTube superstars like Dianxe Xiaoge, the Chinese woman who ditched a white-collar job to move back to her grandparents’ farm and cook for adoring YouTube audiences. Yet the rawness of Rind’s videos is a far, earnest cry from that polished level of multimedia competence — and that’s part of the appeal, for me. It’s the cultural equivalent of seeing something on a GoPro: It feels like you’re there, hearing a dialogue led by the people who have been dedicated to their communities for decades.
There’s an absurdity to watching Rind actually reply to YouTube comments from people in the U.S., and it’s something felt by others who consume the videos (as one person puts it: “Isn’t it strange that you and I can watch this? A hundred years ago, this was absolutely impossible to even know, leave alone watch something live.”) Some fans want to send him gifts. Others talk out loud of visiting his family in person. More than anything, people seem concerned that Rind won’t be properly compensated for his videos, given his channel is run by a third-party friend. It’s a massive shift from much of the 20th century, when audiences expected a surrogate who looks and sounds like them to lead them into unknown worlds. There wasn’t an opportunity for the primary subjects of such documentation to grasp agency for themselves. Slowly, but surely, that’s beginning to shift.
In this new evolution of travel programming, there’s little to no narration — and if there is, it’s from someone native to the area. There’s no emphasis at all on Western historical perspectives or narratives. And in Rind’s case, even the translations for subtitles are primitive, with slow improvement over time as people from around the internet offer help to polish the meaning of certain phrases. The key here is agency — the subject is the messenger. Even the Reactistan food videos serve as a major role reversal of shows like Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, which cast a white man into the position of judging what’s gross and good on behalf of us, the Western viewer. I find it much funnier to watch a bunch of Afghan people from rural tribal communities struggle with the concept of what shrimp is, let alone how it tastes.
So much of travel content has been defined and shaped by non-native voices, that to look for alternatives feels like some small form of reparations. I think of one of my favorite-ever travel programs ever, the Chiang Mai episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown — and it’s only in hindsight that I realize that both his companion, Andy Ricker, and his fixer, Joe Cummings, are two white guys who came to Thailand as both escape and inspiration. They might be the two most informed white guys to ever step on the country’s soil, but they’re still foreigners, aren’t they? And when I think of every travel guy I’ve ever loved to watch, it’s always a white guy — Rick Steves, Keith Floyd, Bourdain and YouTubers like Trevor James.
The global pandemic, and its ramifications for the ethics of traveling and producing content, has radically shifted what I like to watch most. As it turns out, the most refreshing thing in 2020 is seeing a recipe for vermicelli noodles or a disastrous journey through Balochistan through the eyes of the people who live it every single day, not the person visiting for a week. This is the democratization of the internet that I daydreamed about as a kid in 1998, not the Qanon hellscape we’re living out today.
Bourdain once wrote something that resonates with me still: “It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.”
I hope to see the steppes of Mongolia, feel the urban chaos of Lagos and taste the rural cooking of Pakistani tribesmen one day. I have a feeling no amount of video will truly capture the spirit of that cultural communion. But for now, the next best thing is seeing footage of people as they are, shot by those who know this life — without a middleman to make it make sense.