Semesters abroad were the first time I realized I could travel—and I was so excited to. But there were two things instrumental in me not going abroad. Number one, money. I went to Syracuse University and it was more money than college itself (and my parents could barely afford college). Number two, during my freshman year, 35 of our students were killed in the 103 Pan-Am over Lockerbie crash.
Then, when I was finally supposed to go to London, Desert Storm broke out.
My parents said “no way.” For me to go somewhere else so far away—even if it was London—was scary, big-time scary. At 18 years old, I remember thinking, I’ll never travel. That was my chance and that chance just left.
And now I always think, Holy mackerel, I had no idea I would be so, so wrong.
When I got that first job for Great Vacation Homes, which premiered in 1999, my first thought was what’s a travel host? My background was musical theater, and for me the show was something I could put on my reel and then I could go off to L.A. and make it in sitcoms.
Those first episodes were so overwhelming. There’s no script, so it’s up to you to be entertaining and informative. You’ve got to be pleasant to people on camera. You have to look good on camera. You have to look skinny on camera. For the first five or six years of my career, I woke up in fear, thinking, You’re not good enough.
Everyone thinks travel is about exclamation points, but travel is about the commas; the comma is where a culture and people express themselves.
The white male travel hosts I know are very good at what they do, but they’ve also been allowed to get better. They’ve been allowed to fail in a way that women and people of color have never been allowed to. If you have zero diversity in your hosts, you have zero relevance in this world and being irrelevant is the worst thing you can be in media.
It was when I hosted Passport to Latin America that I first thought: I love this. There wasn’t a huge itinerary of must-sees, so I spent more time with people, enjoying them and their way of life. I learned to love the feeling of I have to figure out how to be a part of that, and realized what the power of being in the moment was. Latin America teaches you about life and since then I’ve never looked back. From that moment on I thought, Now I’m a traveler.
Travel shows today have moved toward an over-the-top, unattainable type of travel. A travel full of superlatives: the top five things you have to do. It has to be bucket list level to even be worth it. Everyone thinks travel is about exclamation points, but travel is about the commas; the comma is where a culture and people express themselves. Commas are where we allow ourselves to breathe, to observe, and that’s the travel that I love.
Some years ago, I spent a month in China shooting right before the Olympics. It was made up of exhausting, 17-hour days, and one day, my crew and I stopped off at this random city (I can’t even remember the name) of 10 million people to have dinner. It was gray and polluted, and as I stood there I thought, why am I here? What if I don’t want to do this anymore? I am tired. I want to start a family. I was having a pity party and I was the only one invited, so I decided to take a walk. Along the way I found this impromptu park in the middle of all of this traffic, filled with groups of women doing their tai chi, and couples with their children.
As I was sitting there, two little girls on roller skates came over to me and started speaking in Chinese. When I couldn’t speak any, they looked at each other and skated off, but, later, they came back and asked me questions, giggling and roller skating back and forth. Finally, as I was walking away, I heard my name: It was the two little girls screaming “Sam, Sam.” They came to a stop on their roller skates and one held up her hand and said, “My friend.” Nothing made me feel like I had been there, in China, that whole month, than two little girls who went out of their way to say “friend.”
From then on, that has been the moment I’m always going for—in life and on my show, Places to Love. In the same way foodies seek restaurants, I go for walks. I go where the day takes me, looking for that moment that says, I’m here. It’s not in any travel guide. It’s just mine. —As told to Meredith Carey