10 things Anthony Bourdain taught me about travel
Like many travellers and foodies around the globe, I was hit hard by the news that writer, chef and broadcaster Anthony Bourdain has died at the age of 61. A friend once asked me who my ideal backpacking companion would be, and it was Bourdain’s name that immediately sprung to mind. Perhaps even more gifted as a storyteller than as a cook, his devotion to the unknown had a lasting impact on the way I approached other cultures.
Here are ten things Anthony Bourdain taught me about travel:
The benefits of ‘just moving’
One of Bourdain’s more memorable quotes inspired my travels in the first place:
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move.” He once said – “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
This nomadic call to arms kept me company during my solo adventure. Whenever I felt unsure, anxious or lost, I would hit the road again, speak to someone new and see how I reacted to a fresh environment. Constantly pushing myself away from my comfort zone had a profound influence on my self-confidence and perception of other people.
Micromanaging isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine
There are two types of traveller: those who map out their days in meticulous detail, and then, well, me (more of a buy a motorbike and see what happens kind of guy).
But Bourdain assured me I was in good company, once writing “I learned a long time ago that trying to micromanage the perfect vacation is always a disaster. That leads to terrible times.”
His work taught me that teetering into the unknown is a perfectly valid, even desirable way to explore the world. It was the ‘happy accidents’ that forged some of my fondest memories.
How to deal with transport issues
“The best thing to do is pull up with a cold beer and let somebody else figure it out.”
Try the local food, even the stuff that scares you. You might just be surprised
The thing that set Bourdain apart from other celebrity chefs was his lack of pretension. He was probably more at home on a tiny plastic stool on the streets of Hanoi, than in a gilded Parisian restaurant. And he would tuck into anything – offal, pig trotters, birds nest soup – and savour every last bite.
Food is something that universally binds us, but it’s also unique everywhere we go. Trying new food is an easy and vital way to broach the gap between cultures and peoples, and I was constantly surprised at the bizarre and beguiling recipes I acquired a taste for.
Never try fermented Greenland Shark
Yeah, remember when I said try the scary local food? There’s an exception. For an episode of No Reservations, Bourdain travelled to Iceland and sampled the notorious local delicacy: fermented Greenland shark. The footnote to the episode were the words ‘never again.’
Bourdain described it as the “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting” food he’d ever encountered – and this is a man who’s eaten Namibian warthog rectum.
Sometimes the going gets tough – that’s all part of the journey
I’ll always look back upon my travels with a smile, but nothing is ever perfect every second of the day. From illness and lost items, to seriously sad farewells, there were often bumps in the road to be navigated and reflected upon.
But pain is all part of the human experience – as Bourdain knew: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.”
Have a beer with a local
Whether he was sharing a cold one with the President of the United States, or an elderly stranger from the Philippines, Bourdain displayed the same vivid generosity of spirit.
Interacting with locals should be what travel is all about, and some of the most precious memories are from drinking ice cold beer with new friends in a womb-like bar, overcoming language barriers through warmth and common ground.
Read up on the local history
Novelist, chef, journalist and broadcaster – Bourdain was a true Renaissance man. His work always displayed his rigorous research into a place, its people and its history.
But you needn’t be a famous writer to read up a bit on the local colour. There’s some fantastic travel writing out there that can enhance your appreciation of a place and its culture. Reading Jon Swain’s River of Time before I reached the Mekong really gave me a feel for South Asia’s rich yet turbulent past.
If you can’t put it into words, it’s even more worthwhile
After returning home, it was difficult to do my memories justice – to explain where I’d been and what I’d done without resorting to clichés. But sometimes it’s nice to keep those wordless emotions to yourself.
As Bourdain wrote – “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description…like a love affair you can never talk about. In the end, you’re just happy you were there – with your eyes open – and lived to see it.”
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. Seek help for mental health issues
Despite his well-documented history of depression, the fact that Bourdain died of an apparent suicide came as a shock to many. It’s yet another jolting reminder that depression doesn’t discriminate. Bourdain had, by his own admission, the greatest job in the world. But it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a Brazilian carnival if you’re plagued by anxiety or depressive thoughts.
Never be afraid to reach out and seek help – we’re rarely as alone as we think we are.