Landing in Bulgaria nearly 30 years ago, I felt as though I had stepped through a portal into another dimension. After a 24-hour trip, I at last arrived at Sofia International Airport — then a dim, decrepit facility, a far cry from the modern airport that it is today.
There was, at the time, a definite divide between West and East. The Soviet Union had crumbled only a year earlier, and Bulgaria, a satellite of the USSR, was reeling, politically and economically. Food and gasoline were in short supply and rationed. In the airport, which was hot and stifling without air conditioning, you realized fast that you were leaving behind the modernity of the West and taking a step back in time to a still developing nation.
Bulgaria, where I served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, has since opened to the world and modernized. Its economy is now fully globalized. But I will never forget those first startling, heart-wrenching steps onto Bulgarian soil.
Recently watching the wonderful Apple TV+ series “Long Way Up,” with the hosts Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, I was instantly taken back to that steamy June day in Sofia. For the series, McGregor, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the middle three “Star Wars” films, among many other roles, and Boorman, also an actor, rode custom-made Harley-Davidson electric motorcycles for 13,000 miles from Ushuaia (pronounced oo-SWAY-a), Argentina, practically the southernmost tip of South America, to Los Angeles in 2019.
Toward the end of the 11-episode series, as the pair pass from Mexico into the United States, the stark difference between the two countries is glaringly obvious. At the border, they meet refugees who had fled narco-violence and were camping out in makeshift tents, hoping, praying, to enter the U.S. It is a squalid scene, full of desperation. Then, after a bit of chaos at the border crossing, McGregor and Boorman appear, as if by magic, in America, and all is suddenly well as the two ride, surrounded by a pack of motorcyclists, into Los Angeles. The road is pristine. There is order, a sense of lawfulness.
“Long Way Up” shows us the clear socioeconomic differences between the U.S. and the nations south of its border. McGregor and Boorman never intended to play politics, they have said, but they show us the reasons why so many have fled their homelands in South and Central America and Mexico in search of a better life in the U.S., despite the terrifying uncertainty of the journeys they must undertake. At the same time, our intrepid hosts show us the unwavering resiliency of people living on the edge.
“Long Way Up” is a reality TV documentary that is one part travelogue and one part buddy film. It’s about the close friendship between McGregor and Boorman, but more so, it’s about their relationship to the road and the people they meet serendipitously and befriend along the way.
They ride through some of the most unforgiving regions of the Western Hemisphere — particularly in Peru and Chile, where they pass through the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert, which is so dry that NASA uses it for Mars simulation exercises.
Traversing treacherous terrain, the two fall off their motorcycles a lot, and stall occasionally. But they have a capable backup team in producers David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, who travel behind them, though far out of sight most of the time, in two 2.6-tonne Rivian electric pickup trucks.
They also bring three stellar videographers — Claudio von Planta, Jimmy Simak and Anthony von Sek — along for the ride. With drones, the three capture the breathtaking beauty of the terrain through which the team travels.
“Long Way Up” is a perfect antidote for the pandemic cabin fever so many of us are feeling. The show is all about motion — moving from one stage of the journey to the next in rapid-fire succession. McGregor and Boorman never stop anywhere for long before they’re off to their next destination.
They linger only when they stop to promote projects undertaken by the United Nations Children’s Fund, ranging from providing schooling for Indigenous people previously denied an education to sheltering orphaned children fleeing violence. McGregor and Boorman have featured UNICEF projects in each of their three travel series — the first two were “Long Way Round” (from London to New York via Central Europe, Eurasia, Russia and Canada in 2004) and “Long Way Down” (through Europe and Africa in 2007). I never realized how much good UNICEF does around the globe. I had to make a donation.
“Long Way Up” offers lessons in geography and culture. More so, though, it is a lesson in basic humanity that I would highly recommend watching for yourself, along with its two companion series.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.