Amazing Nomads: Eric Maddox - Breaking Bread and Barriers

Eric Maddox is breaking down cultural barriers by hosting virtual dinner parties with guests from countries in conflict, questioning why conversation is absent from mainstream news coverage.

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Photo © Supplied: Working on an article for the launch of the first Virtual Dinner Guest event in Juárez, Mexico.

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Amazing Nomads: Eric Maddox

Inspired by travel, Eric Maddox created the Virtual Dinner Guest Project bringing everyday people together from different countries, mostly the US and countries it is in conflict with, to share a meal via video link with the aim of breaking down cultural barriers and misconceptions.


What’s in the Episode

01:34 "My questioning about, let's see, my responsibilities as a citizen of my country, the U.S. and also the world, and my curiosity about my place looks back to both of those." - Eric on the Virtual Dinner Guest Project and Latitude Adjustment podcast

02:55 Eric's thoughts on news media

07:12 Celebrity scandals and implant malfunctions

07:35 The Virtual Dinner Guest Project

11:43 Heading to the Middle East

14:26 "... I found that by and large one of the most constant things in my travel in Middle East is how hospitable and warm the people are."

16:30 Challenging preconceptions

17:14 Mark Twain's quote about travel

17:38 About the Latitude Adjustment podcast

19:08 Next week

Who is in the Episode

Eric Maddox is the Executive Director of Open Roads Media and the Founder & Producer, of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project.

“The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is facilitating a global shift in the way people relate to news media. Where many of us have grown accustomed to seeing news as a commodity to be consumed, we aim to create a global network of local producers, committed to sharing their communities through open dialogue and film.”

Virtual dinner in Gaza connecting to the Native American community.

Eric also hosts the podcast Latitude Adjustment with interviews emphasizing voices in what Eric describes as “the Global South, with context, local insights & solutions that are too often absent from traditional news coverage.”

You can follow the Latitude Adjustment podcast on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @LatitudePodcast

Resources & Links

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.

Eric’s work has attracted global press. Read more here.

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About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

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You can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected].

We use the Rodecaster Pro to record our episodes and interviews when in the studio, made possible with the kind support of Rode.


Speaker 1: The World Nomads Podcast bonus episode. Hear amazing Nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.

Kim: Thanks to Jeanine, Kim and Phil with you, and another Amazing Nomads podcast. This episode focuses on somebody named Eric Maddox.

Phil: Yeah, look, Eric was inspired by travel to create the virtual Dinner Guest Project, which brings everyday people together from different countries. Most of the U.S. in countries it's in conflict with see, see where this is heading.

Kim: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Phil: He gets them to share a meal via video link with the aim of bringing, breaking down those cultural barriers and getting rid of those misconceptions.

Kim: Yeah now Eric also shines the spotlight on mainstream media questioning the nightly bite-sized news grabs that can lead to misunderstanding rather than conversation which is what he's all about. Phil, a disclosure, both you and I have journalism backgrounds in both radio and TV.

Phil: Yep, yep we're responsible for some of that.

Kim: Yeah, exactly.

Phil: Eric also has a podcast, The Latitude Adjustment, with interviews emphasizing voices in what Eric describes as the global south with context, local insights, and solutions that are too often absent from traditional news coverage.

Kim: It's a great podcast actually, check it out. Eric, did it all begin though with the virtual dinner guest?

Eric: Well depends on what you mean by it? My questioning about, let's see, my responsibilities as a citizen of my country, the U.S. and also the world, and my curiosity about my place looks back to both of those. Identities, I'd say that started a bit earlier, and that the virtual [inaudible 00:01:45] project in my current work, with the podcast latitude adjustment, I'd say that those are extensions, of that journey of questioning, and that very physical journey, in the world, so just say that yeah, my questioning really began with my first experience, as traveling. First going back, to when I was kid and I had this unique opportunity to travel, with an aunt and uncle to Zimbabwe, and then, saw some things that where so far removed from what I consider to be normal, as an American kid growing up in Central California.

Eric: That just got my wheels turning, then I traveled to the Middle East, about a year after, the attacks of September, 11 happened in the U.S. because I had a lot of curiosity and some anger, and I wanted to understand a little, bit more about, quote on quote that part of the world, I mean at that point I was thinking as all, of the Middle East as one place, and not a, diverse region. It was those two events probably that really started me on my path

Kim: So, I guess the obvious question from that answer, is your take on new media and questioning, the idea that what if the evening news was replaced with the evening conversation. How do you view World news, at the moment or news bulletins?

Eric: There's definitely areas where I can generalize, but I want to be careful, and point out that I'm aware that's what I'm doing. I think that there's some excellent, news outlets out there a lot of really great stuff being done by independent producers, I'm not just saying that cause I'm one of them. I think that, the internet has democratized media production, in some ways that are really exciting, and that also means that everybody gets a voice so there's a lot of noise. But it gives us a lot of freedom to not necessarily, have to rely on advertisers, or traditional revenue streams to be able to get our message out our cultivable following. So that's really cool, as far as traditional or quote on quote, mainstream media, It's kinda a mess isn't it. Especially I'd say U.S. television news, and I know with the popular networks are to single out, but I'm not really interested in doing that, I think that its all kinda [inaudible 00:04:05] from start to finish, its just a question, where the things are on the spectrum.

Eric: [inaudible 00:04:10] where to begin with that, I think one of the chief problems, is the soundbite culture, and I'm not sure where to assign blame there if that's due to short attention spans, and a lack of curiosity in the part of the consumer, or if that's what's being cultivated in us, by a commercially interest driven media culture, that's more interested in keeping us tuned in long enough to buy the next product that they are trying to sell us, on that network. But there doesn't seem to be a whole, lot a time or attention paid to nuance, and to not just preventing, simplistic narratives, with just reinforced stereotypes about different places around the world specially the global south. For me it's that second and third question that need to be the focus of more the coverage of global events, and also context when we're, hearing about conflict or we're, hearing about, why the consequences of even a natural disaster are so severe in some places, that they are not in others. It's often treated as if this, things are taking place in a historical, vacuum. I see a responsibility of the media to keep the citizens informed, and to address the public interest, and to speak truth to power.

Phil: I, was

Eric: Its, my two cents.

Phil: No, no its great and its fantastic, and you've really just challenged on a lot of things they're on a personal level, and I appreciate that, I really do, and I agree with so much of what you're saying. A bit of background on me I used to be a television news producer

Eric: Sorry.

Phil: No, no, no, no, no. It's fine, I mean what you're saying a lot of that is really true, and I'm just thinking right now, it's a half hour bulletin and you know there was a curtain amount of time allowed for sports, and weather and we had three commercial breaks to fit in. so we knew exactly how much content we could fit in. And I'm trying to think, why it is, that a story had to be around about one minute and ten seconds.

Eric: Um hum.

Phil: And I think that was because, we wanted to fit in as many as we could, so that's really challenged my beliefs there how long a story should be. But ill tell you [inaudible 00:06:30] did that make vacuous, and you know shallow when...

Eric: I've interacted with quite a few journalist over the years, and lived with a few to in my travels, and I do understand that this isn't necessarily down to the person who's actually presenting or even writing the news, that there's a chain of command if you will.

Kim: Yeah.

Eric: I, also I mean, I take your point that, there are a number of stories to cover, and for me okay if you reduce to one and a half minutes to cover like some sort of horrible humanitarian disaster someplace in Africa or pick a country, because the rest of the coverage is also devoted to equally important topics, then I get it, but if half of the news coverage is devoted to a celebrity scandal, and implant malfunction, and then you try to squeeze in a couple of minutes at the end or in between these scandals to cover things that actually matter, that's where I get frustrated.

Kim: Yeah, it is about conversation and I guess that's what let you Eric, to the virtual dinner guest project, and I'd like you to explain that for people listening.

Eric: Nice, segue, I see what you did there.

Phil: Yes, thanks for bringing it [inaudible 00:07:33].

Kim: Thank you, Thank you.

Eric: The, virtual dinner guest project, is in a nut shell its getting people from countries, that either share political conflict or share some sort of common cause and struggle, people typically students to sit down and connected by the internet, so some sort of video conferencing platform, sit down and share a meal together while they discuss critical news issues, or points of tension and stereotypes between them. So they sit down on either ends. So I've done for example I've connected the Native American, community in the U.S. to Palestinian in the Gaza Strip. And they sit down and have a 90 minute discussion over a meal on both sides, so it kinda looks like your dinner table is continuing into the other's sides living room or class room through this virtual connection, and you have discussion, about what ever you've been reading about each others communities and [inaudible 00:08:27]

Eric: In fact we actually exchange news articles ahead of time from each others communities about each others communities, to kind of compare how we're been reported versus how we see ourselves. And at the end of those discussions each side then posses a question to the other side, and what ever question you receive, you then have about two weeks to take it to the streets in your community and interview random people. With this question that's been given to you by people in another country. And we take those two short films produced independently on both sides, they're about ten minutes usually, and post them online as a free public education resource. So it starts with like this intimate encounter around a virtual dinner table that's what the baseline is like mutual curiosity by each others communities, and a way to address confusion, and fear and then taking that to the streets and producing something that can actually educate the public.

Eric: And the reason for that is well some of the things we've already talked about, I mean there's a number of things that I'm trying to accomplish with it but one of them is media literacy, and getting people to think more critically, about the news that they consume and how those narratives shape their view of the world, and even of them selves, and that one of the best ways to challenge ourselves, is to expose ourselves to, the focus of those news articles directly, instead of just reading a book that presents us a competing set of theories just talk to the people in that place. Now remove the middle man, remove the editor and this all came about because I saw myself playing that role, at serious points, I did my graduate research in International conflict transformation, living in the west bank than a refugee camp, this is back in 2007, 2008.

Eric: And I spent about five months well I spent serval months living there, and I spent a couple months traveling around interviewing Israelis, and Palestinians about their direct experience with the 1948 war. And I made a very, very basic documentary film out of that, that let to getting some funds to do a similar project in the U.S. Mexico border, this is around 2009, 2011. And in the middle of doing that project where I was interviewing Mexicans and Americans in either side of our wall because there was already a wall, I realized that I'd taken on more than I can handle with my limited budget and basically one person, I had some assistance but mostly it was just me. And I realized also I was duplicating something other people had kinda already done to some degree, what could I do that could be unique with my limited resources, so I decided to start connecting people, directly in real time, across the border, in a moment when things where particularly violent in Northern Mexico and where Americans where no longer really traveling there as tourist so they weren't seeing the reality on the ground. So we, the first instance of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project was putting Skype cameras, putting web cams in Mexicans families houses and connecting them to Americans in Santa Fe New Mexico, to have one of this sit down discussions.

Eric: And then from there, I crowd founded this concept because at this point we're into 2011, and a lot of stuff is going on in the Middle East if people remember the Egyptian Revolution was in 2011. And so I crowd funded and took off again for the Middle East, and I was thinking I might be gone for two months, and four months would be a success, and it turned into serval years.

Kim: So, you're not someone sitting in an office trying to achieve this, your actually on the ground.

Eric: Yeah, I mean where to begin, um it wasn't my first experience of the Middle East, and I covered a lot of ground, I wound up spending cumulatively, probably over two years in Egypt and a good chunk of time many months in Lebanon, and then wound up going to the Gaza Strip, to Syria as well about a year, I guess after the conflict started there. And spent some time in Turkey, Tunisia and a little bit of time in Jordan as well before heading to India. So I mean one thing I guess if I wanted to point out, one message that I'd like people to take home, specially when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa is don't buy hype that you are getting in the news, it's not that everything is just lies, its not that its not that there's no conflict, no hardship, and no extremism, its just that those things don't really defy my daily life there. And I don't think that they defy the daily lives of most people there.

Eric: Poverty might, and a curtain degree of frustration with their political circumstances, and oppression might, but I wasn't running around dodging bullets and car bombs, car bombings and kidnappings. It's just the image that I think a number of people had with what I do and during my travels, that I'm like extraordinarily brave James Bond type person and that I'm just wading into war zones and that's really not it at all. I've felt much safer in most of these places than I have in big cities in the U.S. walking after a certain hour and so that I want to make that clear too I'm not a brave person at all and you don't need to be to experience the Middle East and its diverse region.

Eric: That would be the second thing that I would point out that the middle east is not a country it's a manufactured western construct. It suggest a certain world view that even first of all that come up with a certain agenda that came up with like what defined that region and even it borders, but what is the middle east and what isn't is a subject of debate its just totally arbitrary so its important for people to understand that while Arabic might be widely spoken it ethnically diverse there's religious diversity their diversity with in dialect of Arabic which you will quickly discover if you're trying to learn it and that I found that by and large one of the most constant thing in my travel in Middle East is how hospitable and warm the people are and how people will just take you off the street into their homes and feed you. That was consistent experience that I had.

Kim: Can, you tell us why travel is so important? And, I guess it's a double barrel question, and discuss why its important to be curious as a traveler?

Eric: Yeah, that's, why its important to be curious, its hard for me to even separate those things out, because for me its like why would you travel, if your motivation wasn't curiosity to begin with. Its just hard for me to understand why it would even have appel I guess you can do one of those resort packages, and just chill out on the beach and pretend that you're anywhere. That's a thing, but to me I mean to paraphrase, Mark Twain I think he said something along the lines, of its hard to have charitable, and sympathetic views of humanity if you spend your entire life just rotting away in one small corner of the world. I think that, I want to take people, on a journey that I've been on and that I continue to go on, and it's not just one that has to do with geography it has to do with philosophy, it has to do with personal growth and development, and travel is been a part of that because it's challenged a lot of my preconceptions and continues to do that. Even traveling in the same places, like I wouldn't say I'm an expert on any of the places, that I've been at all.

Eric: And it continues to reveal to me, things that I necessarily don't like or wouldn't want to share openly, it reveals my, pettiness and my prejudices, and my ignorance, on a variety of different levels. But if you're open to that there's a challenge that's put to you that can, lead to growth and can lead to greater understanding. It can provide you with the opportunity to strike up friendships with people from a pretty wide range of communities.

Eric: And so, curiosity is what kind of determines where I want to go in the world. And how I behave when I'm there, and I think once you start to have your presumptions challenged, on any topic it can translate to other elements of your life, the impact that travel has had on me is not just that I've learned something about Egyptian culture, it's that I've learned something about Nationalism and what it looks like in my own country. Because of how I've seen play out in the streets in Cairo, it's that I've learned something about, the value of free speech and the individual liberties, because I've seen places that don't have those things. And understood their importance back home and maybe where they're being threaten, because I've been able to look at my own country now as an outsider having, seeing how some, of the same [inaudible 00:17:03] in other places, that distance can lend you a really important measure of perspective, when it comes to how you view your own, community and your place in it.

Phil: I, found the Mark Twain quote do you want the whole, lot. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Eric: Amen .

Phil: Yeah, Amen.

Kim: Amen, so as we close, your podcast the latitude adjustment podcast, what's it about?

Eric: The focus of the podcast it, self is to highlight under represented, views places and communities from around the world, I mean going back to again to this kind of consistent thread, on our conversation today, about media and what gets prioritized, and soundbite culture, I kind of want to provide an antidote to that. To find the stuff that's getting not covered at all or being given like short treatment, and do a deep dive, most frequently is someone who's local, every once in a while it will be somebody who like maybe did their PH.D research on that area, and they speak the language, and they understand it well, and to try, and understand, root causes. Instead of just looking at symptoms, and looking at the facts looking at okay why do the same places continue, to remain in these conditions that are unlivable. Where we might begin to find some of the solutions to that, by listening to the experiences of everyday people.

Kim: If you consider your self a global citizen as I said before chat you must subscribe to the, latitude adjustment to hear personal stories that Eric captured so beautifully, and watch or listen to the resources he provides to further continue the conversation and challenge those stereotypes and political narratives.

Phil: Which, um just happened to us a little bit there, didn't it.

Kim: It did, it did, yes.

Phil: I, feel much better now, but look speaking of stereotypes we heard Eric talk about what is the Middle East and what isn't, next week's destination episode features, travel to Amman, and we chat with local travel blogger, Rama.

Rama: It's a stereotype, I believe you know that Middle East is not safest place but you know what, take my word it is one of the safest places to travel in the world I mean, people should move on now.

Kim: Indeed, now more from Rama, in the next episode Phil as you said exploring Amman, which is growing in popularity, as destination and we want inspire you to visit this place before everyone else does, you can get the worlds nomads podcast through your favorite podcast app, rather and Phil to get in touch?

Phil: Please do send us an email at [email protected]

Kim: Who, knows that episode might just start a conversation. Bye.

Phil: Bye.

Man: Amazing, nomads they inspire.

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