Now, voyager: Around the world with Jessica Zafra and Pepe Diokno

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Writer Jessica Zafra and director Pepe Diokno are the hosts of the new travel show “Trippies,” on CNN Philippines. The program goes beyond the picturesque landscapes and uses the banter between the two hosts for a smart and humorous discussion of the destination’s culture, politics, and everything in between. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Jessica Zafra is worried that, next to filmmaker Pepe Diokno, they’ll look like a mother and son tandem in their travel show, "Trippies." The new weekly half-hour show on CNN Philippines finds the two "talk" their way around the world, setting off to places, with their banter forming the core of the show. But since there is, as Zafra puts it, "a vast, vast age difference," between them, they might not look like actual travel show hosts.

“Seriously, I think I was in some classes with your mom,” says Zafra. “Because when she was taking her masters we were classmates in Shakespeare or something.”

Diokno tells her that this is the first time she’s brought it up, considering they’ve shot several episodes of the show already, their destinations spanning Asia and Europe. But, as Diokno recounts, Zafra’s theory was immediately debunked when they sat down for a portrait in Beijing.

“We went to the art zone where they can do your portraits,” says Diokno. “So we sat down, and then lumabas nagmukha kaming couple.”

"A gay couple," Zafra adds, laughing.

The pilot episode of “Trippies” actually showcases how the banter between Zafra and Diokno can make for an engrossing watch. The two are self-proclaimed nerds and they take in each destination with a hefty dose of culture — all sifted through their distinct perspectives.

In Beijing, where the first two episodes were filmed, Diokno and Zafra were just getting to know each other. The two have known each other previously, although only tangentially. They both work for the same newspaper, The Philippine Star — whose T.V. production arm, Philstar TV, is a co-presenter of the show. Diokno edits the Saturday pop culture section, Supreme, while Zafra used to write a column for the lifestyle pages, having recently taken a break to finish writing her novel.

“We didn’t really hang out,” says Zafra. “But we knew each other because I watch a lot of movies and Pepe makes movies…”

“She gave my movies bad reviews,” Diokno interjects. To which Zafra responds, “They suck!” with a cackle.

The show capitalizes on the wry exchanges between the two: Zafra, a seasoned writer who’s known for her biting humor and incisive eye for detail; and Diokno, a filmmaker — and occasional columnist — who’s had a flair for discussing pressing matters.

Whether at The Great Wall, the Hagia Sophia, or on sets of Koreanovelas, and in between bites of exotic food, Zafra and Diokno pick out the most interesting marvels and dole out insights you won’t find in any generic travel guide.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with the two hosts and talked about unexpected adventures, essential travel tips, and meeting the cat that welcomed Obama.

How do you think your banter developed throughout the course of the shoot?

Jessica Zafra (JZ): Well, nerd culture is the same, whatever the age. And also, we have very distinct interests. Like you Pepe, when you go to a place, what do you…

Pepe Diokno (PD): I like to eat the weird food.

JZ: He likes the preparation. And I like to eat.

PD: I’m the kind of person who would — and this happened — dance with a belly dancer.

JZ: And I’m like, “I want to go home and sleep!” Really, because I’m used to traveling alone. The only difficult part for me is spending entire days in the company of a large group. Because I’m not used to humans anymore. I’ve become a cat.

PD: Jessica is basically a cat. We found that out in Istanbul where there were so many stray cats.

JZ: There was a cat there who’s more famous than anyone of us. He lives in Hagia Sophia, which is this ancient church, and we were doing an interview and he interrupted to sit between us and look at the camera. It turns out, he was the same cat that greeted Obama when he came there.

PD: So now we’re one degree away from Obama.

trippies jessica zafra.jpg Writer Jessica Zafra says she travels for material and would rather wander around destinations alone. But as the co-host of "Trippies," she's since experienced traveling with a number of people. "This is all filed away and will turn up in a story somewhere," she says. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

How do you think your differences fueled the interaction between you two on camera?

PD: I don’t think we’re that different actually. The show is basically us going places, meeting people and then thinking about how that affects us. So we end up talking about history, culture, religion, and we kind of agree on a lot of the same things.

We were in the middle of the Forbidden City in Beijing and we started talking about how the Philippines has never had a revolution. We were in the middle of this place where you saw how they changed from a monarchy to a communist system. And we were lamenting about how our revolutions never really prosper.

JZ: We always find something to talk about but we do have distinct interests. Like, Pepe will seek out the night life and me, I’m like, “Yeeesh, night life! Humans!” [Laughs]. I’m [just] gonna go back to my room and write something. This is how the difference in generation turns up. Pepe’s into being connected, and I’m into being left alone.

You guys are both writers, how involved are you in writing the show?

JZ: What happens is the form of writing that we do is basically thinking on our feet. We don’t know what’s gonna be there until we get there so everything is spontaneous. As in we just blurt out everything that’s in our heads. [Laughs]

PD: But at the end of the day, we try to synthesize the trip. So for example, South Korea was sending us to malls, amusement centers, K-pop concerts, and the whole time we were just trying to figure everything out: How does every thing tie into each other? How does this all make sense? What’s the big picture? And we did. I think that comes out greatly on the South Korea episode. We actually connect all of that, the tourist destinations they sent us to, we connected that to K-pop and Korean dramas. And then connected all of that to what we read about Korean culture in general.

trippies pepe diokno.jpg Filmmaker Pepe Diokno's travel tip: "Try to immerse yourself as much as you can with the local culture, which means eating the food, talking to people ... going beyond your circle of Filipinos because as Filipinos we tend to stick together." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

One of the interesting things in the pilot is when you mention how familiar you thought Beijing was, because you’ve seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” a lot of times. So how was being a film buff instrumental to the making of the show?

JZ: It was still a big influence. We went to Anatolia in Turkey and you cannot set foot in Anatolia without thinking about …

PD: “Winter Sleep”!

JZ: We’re media consumers so everything is strangely familiar. But also, alien. When we set foot there I read novels of Orhan Pamuk so when I went to Istanbul I was like “Ah, this was the one in that book!’

PD: And she did go to Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence…

JZ: ...which is essentially a tie-in for his book.

PD: Jessica likes to read a book from the destination [country] before she goes. Ako naman, I like to come in fresh. But we also try to flip things. Jessica said we’re consumers of media, but we also write and create media. So whenever we visit a destination, we ask each other if you were to write about this place, what would it be about? And if I were to make a film about this place, what would it be about?

Treat sudden, unexpected developments as an adventure. We were stranded in Turkey because there was record snowfall so we had an extra day so it became a road trip!

What were some of the discoveries you guys made, both personal and about the places you’ve visited for the show?

JZ: People have radically different views of the same thing…. It’s very interesting to incorporate everyone’s opinions … I always say I travel for material so this is all filed away and will turn up in a story somewhere.

PD: Discoveries are different in every destination and seeing what we see there, we need to apply it to our own [perspectives]. So in Beijing, it was seeing how they’ve managed to become a singular unit. All the people in Beijing working in one goal made us realize how…

JZ: Yeah how can they always be in lockstep? If you have two Pinoys in one room, there’s already at least three ideas. [Laughs] … three opposing opinions at least.

PD: If you have two Pinoys in a room you already have two political parties…. In South Korea, it’s how they’ve managed to manufacture everything. We discovered how they’re masters of marketing. Ang galing nila. Every destination is a set of a Koreanovela and that’s why people go.

JZ: And they’ll even tell you where to pose for pictures. Because this is where si kwan met si kwan, and you should post this, and there’s free WiFi.

PD: In Turkey, it was like going to a different world. We got to go to Cappadocia. It was only then that we experienced so much silence. And for me it was my first [experience of] snow. Fluffy fluffy snow.

JZ: That’s why we’ve become snow snobs. When we go to some other place with snow, we’ll say "This is not fresh snow!" [Laughs]

 

Any dream destinations?

PD: Public service announcement na ba ‘to?

JZ: I’ve never been to South America. You’ve been to the Balkans, I’ve never been. I’ve never really seen the desert, like with pyramids and…

PD: I can’t imagine you in the desert.

JZ: Well, with sunblock, a very large umbrella, and a fan and air conditioning [Laughs]. Actually what I heard was if you go to Egypt, it’s shocking how close the pyramids are to the city. You’ve got the Sphinx and you’ve got the mall.

PD: Yeah, South America ... Scandinavia.

JZ: I wanna to go Ethiopia.

PD: Ethiopia was one of the best trips of my life. Although it might be a bit different now because of the political situation.

Any travel tips you’ve picked up along the way?

JZ: Number one, do not be so engrossed in taking selfies that you don’t see the place. Because I know a lot of people, they’ll go to a place and the first question is “May WiFi ba dito?” And then they start taking pictures of themselves. Later you ask them, what do you think of the place? And they barely remember it. They’ll only remember it when they look at the photos. Of the place itself, it’s a blank.

PD: That and try to immerse yourself as much as you can with the local culture, which means eating the food, talking to people ... going beyond your circle of Filipinos because as Filipinos we tend to stick together.

JZ: And also, treat sudden, unexpected developments as an adventure. We were stranded in Turkey because there was record snowfall so we had an extra day so it became a road trip! We spent 10 hours in a van. All the domestic flights were canceled but the international fights were on, and we had to go from Cappadocia to Istanbul so we took a van. I have seen every truck stop and public restroom between Anatolia and Istanbul, and it was fun!

PD: One of the tips that we got in Beijing was one of the first things you should do is find a local translation of the toilet.

JZ: Yes! And put in in your phone!

PD: Get the calling card of wherever you’re staying. Download Google Translate because it works offline, and you can use your camera to translate signs.

JZ: Go to where the locals shop! When you go to a tourist destination, you’re not just buying an item, you’re buying the experience. On the other hand when you go to where the locals shop, you’re just buying the thing. [Laughs]

 

****

“Trippies” premieres on Sunday, March 12, 2017 at 7:30 p.m, with replays on Tuesdays, 1:30 p.m.; Thursdays; 12:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. “Trippies” is a co-production between CNN Philippines and Philstar TV. For more information about the show, visit their official Facebook page.