I can’t believe I’m writing this. Every thought used to create this post wears me down more and more, but this is necessary. Each word is an extra weight on my heart, heavier and heavier until I need to let go, step away from the laptop, and take a break.
I woke up to immediately read the news that Anthony Bourdain had died. Being on the older side and constantly abroad, I had assumed he had an accident, or maybe he had cardiac arrest. When I learned he died of suicide, my heart completely shattered. The biggest shock of all of this is that he died. He lived so much, that the idea of him dying seems absurd.
As soon as I got the travel bug when I was thirteen, I immediately sought out the travel channel; I was desperate for a show to become hooked to so I could still travel mentally while in high school. I tried several shows but none worked for me; they all seemed very artificial. These people were either the pampered tourist, “enlightened backpacker,” or the try-hard zany American. It showcased a very glossy image of travel and the human psyche I knew was a farce, and it wasn’t until I found one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, No Reservations.
Through food, this show introduced America to the familiar and the far-flung. Here was this former chef, with a crass, somewhat gritty personality showing the world through his lens. It was a breath of fresh air: it felt so authentic. He cursed, make crude jokes, got drunk sometimes, but also touched on important issues such as immigration, racism, and socioeconomic disparities. He was just real; a pristine, neutral public image was no concern. Every time he talked, I felt like he was telling me, a close friend, these stories in a dive bar. He made me, and millions of others, feel like his best friend, and that was his shining quality. Simply put, he was a remarkable storyteller. I got to know him so well, while placing the spotlight on the incredibly important natives he meets with.
My dad and I showed each other his shows, and that was our thing whenever it was on. I remember watching his Scotland episodes on repeat months before moving. More importantly, I would see my dad’s eyes open wide with curiosity as he trekked through Cambodia, and I saw his mind, as well as mine, open. But most importantly, Bourdain humanised negatively-viewed places as well.
One of my favourite episodes of his was when he went to Iran (watch here). He emphasised how genuinely kind everyone was to him, to the point where they’d invite him for dinner and cook almost comically large amounts of food. He showed both sides: Iran, once described by George W. Bush as one of the “axes of evil,” is a multidimensional, hospitable country. Crazy! Maybe places aren’t just the portrait the media paints them! But Bourdain was the only one willing to dig deeper than popular tourist sites and provide an introspective, authentic view of Iranian life. He had one of the only shows on TV that taught Americans not to be scared of other people; in the current political landscape, we needed him now more than ever.
He, out of anyone, inspired me the most to travel. I’d watch other travel shows and feel what’s commonly known, and I say begrudgingly, “wanderlust.” But, “wanderlust,” to me, carries such a shallow connotation. Bourdain’s intimate approach enabled me to know more about his subject city/country than any glorified tourist guide could. He inspired me to see travel differently: to immerse myself into cultures different than mine, to meet locals, hear their stories and lift them up, to acknowledge injustices and uncomfortable truths about my native country. He made travel multifaceted, intricate, and most importantly, he made travel purposeful.
He also taught me the strength food has on bonding; my best memories travelling aren’t the museums or the sights; they’ve always been the food. My most cherished memories involve meeting someone at my city and having the shared experience of trying an incredible local dish. This has ranged from a spectacular mussel risotto in Split to the flavourful crocodile in Siem Reap. Food is perhaps the most immersive way to travel; you get sensory stimulation, history, humour, economic status, and politics all in one. Food is one of the most powerful mediators in the world; nothing can break social, economic, and cultural barriers like a nice meal.
From the traditional street food of Hanoi, to the world’s most exclusive restaurant in Copenhagen, he always saved us a seat at the table (even if said table in Hanoi had Barack Obama present). He brought the world to America’s living room: it was the only show that directly sought out to destigmatise harmful stereotypes by showing a country’s real local people, as opposed to TV characters. He was never afraid to touch on controversial topics, a taboo within the traveler community. He used his wealth and celebrity to educate the world and shine light on marginalised groups. Anthony Bourdain was the world’s most interesting and exciting man, and the world feels incomplete without him.
I told my parents, since I first saw him, that I want to be the next Anthony Bourdain, but I hope that through this platform, I can contribute even a tenth of what he has done for me, and for all of us. Had I not stumbled upon his show that evening, I know, for a fact, that I would be a completely different person. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, and thank you for opening millions of peoples’ eyes to this beautiful, complex planet.
To the readers, please, please check in on your friends. If you ever feel suicidal, here’s a list of international suicide hotlines. But also, check for warning signs, don’t judge them if they tell you their uncomfortable truths. Let them know that they are important, loved, and cherished, and the world would be a worse place without them. Stay by their side, help them in any way you can.