Project Explorer: Free Online Travel Series for Kids

by Sarah Menkedick Sep 27, 2010

Project Explorer founder Jenny M. Buccos pressing tortillas in Oaxaca. Photos: author

There’s a lot of talk in travel world bemoaning the fact that Americans “don’t travel”, and judging this lack as a sort of moral, personal, and educational failure.

IN MY EXPERIENCE, there’s little consideration among seasoned travelers of the fact that for many Americans, and for the majority of people worldwide, travel is a luxury, an indicator of wealth and status accessible only to the privileged.

It was with this in mind that I decided to check out Project Explorer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing free online travel series: a sort of Travel-Meets-Discovery Channel for kids. The emphasis is anthropological; the series’ presenters delve into matters linguistic, cultural, social, and historical and tailor brief films about these subjects to children in grades K-12.

The Project Explorer team visits one “destination” at a time– although their exploration of it goes far beyond the kind of banal tourist experience that term implies – and camps out there for several weeks, meeting and talking with local people from chefs to artisans to lucha libre wrestlers and putting together an eclectic and wide-ranging series of videos about everything from local fashion to national myths and legends to brief vocabulary lessons in the local language.

Jenny M. Buccos, the organization’s no-nonsense, dedicated, and stunningly organized founder, scouts out locations months in advance and weaves a web of connections, locations, and subjects before the group departs. When the Project Explorer crew arrives, she runs the show: setting up shots, doing multiple takes if necessary, arranging lighting, asking key questions behind the scenes, guiding and directing her presenters, and making sure the content is geared towards the appropriate age group.

Cooper Bates photographs the team in the Central de Abastos market.

I met up with her and Project Explorer’s Mexico team in Oaxaca and accompanied them for a whirlwind day of filming at the sprawling Centro de Abastos market and the hotel Casa Oaxaca.

In the market, arguably one of Oaxaca’s most chaotic and disorienting spaces, the Project Explorer team – Jenny M. Buccos, Jazmine de Costa, Lindsay Clark, Vijaya Selvaraju, Nicole Duell, and Cooper Bates – swept from scene to scene with masterful command: fanning out to film and photograph Vijaya drinking tejate or explaining the significance of the guaje plants (from which Oaxaca got its name); sampling barbacoa and hand-pressed tortillas; filming interviews with vegetable sellers and shopkeepers even as we kept up our brusque procession through the marketplace.

The result is a vibrant collage of market scenes that captures both the hustle of the place and the unique, distinguishing moments that characterize shopping there (sampling and buying cactus fruits, wrapping tasajo in a warm tortilla, sipping tejate from a gourd).

This is what Project Explorer does: it takes the thrilling local details, stories, and cultural-historical lessons that fascinate travelers and makes them accessible to kids who might never get the chance to experience them firsthand.

Vijaya Selvaraju shows a bunch of guajes to the camera.

After the market, we returned to Casa Oaxaca to cook with Chef Alejandro Ruiz. I sat on a stool at the long wooden counter and drank fresh agua de mango while the team did their thing.

They blended and smoked chiles until everyone’s eyes watered, peeled beans, chopped vegetables, and chatted with Ruiz about the local ingredients he uses and the traditional recipes Oaxaca is famous for.

Meanwhile I snuck in bites of the best sopa de guias (literally “vine soup”, made from squash vines and leaves) I’ve ever had.

When the cooking was over we were treated to a meal of sopa de guias, ribs in a sauce of Oaxacan chiles (guajillo and chilhuacles rojos y negros) with verdolagas (a bright, citrusy green herb) and crunchy purple tortillas.

Stuffed, contented, and exhausted, I said my goodbyes to the Project Explorer team as they prepared to head out for yet another shoot, this time with a local designer of “ethnofashion.” I imagined them with their swirling enthusiasm trying on dresses and filming bits about bordado (traditional Oaxacan embroidery), slipping in insights here and there about local dress and its history.

The Project Explorer team during a cooking class at Casa Oaxaca

Project Explorer’s Mucho Mexico series comes out today, and I’m jumping at the chance to check it out: not only because it features my adopted hometown, but because I’m excited to share Oaxaca with my nieces and nephews, and to go picking out clips that will get them interested in Oaxacan alebrijes and fried grasshoppers.

I am a believer in travel. I am a firmer believer in recognizing one’s own travel privilege, and in working to find ways to make travel accessible not only to a privileged few but also to people who might not be able to hop on a plane and fly to Mexico. Project Explorer takes those compelling details of place which pry open travelers’ minds, passion, and curiosity and brings them to kids in the U.S, who will hopefully take from them the kind of compassionate interest in other cultures that keeps travelers taking to the road again and again.

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