Anthony Bourdain was the ultimate traveler with the ultimate job. We watched him walk through the world in tee shirt and jeans, his lanky body mingling through crowds in both familiar and exotic destinations. He entered seaside hangouts in third-world countries and Michelin-starred restaurants on high-end city streets with the same mischievous, rock-star aplomb.
He could quip about noodles with President Obama over a beer in Viet Nam and share questionable stews with villagers in a mud hut in Africa, and hold his own. He dined on the finest cuisine in the world in the fanciest places, schmoozing with star chefs, but he loved street food in back alleys, real people and meat on a stick.
He was never just a foodie or a tourist. Food may have been what started his travels, but more and more he opened his own mind, and ours, to the people and places where he ate. He defined what a real traveler is, not just because he visited places where most of us had not yet been and probably would never venture to, but because he was open and authentic: “Tony”– the way we hoped we could be when maybe we got where we longed to travel.
A recent return trip to Spain happened because I viewed his segment on San Sebastian, where women fish mongers teased him about his masculinity: he was so playful, soulful and wornly attractive. I sought out the pinxto bar he had featured. I wanted to live my experiences as deeply as he did, and because of that I stretched myself to travel better and more adventurously than I may have otherwise. He helped us all become better, more open observers.
He wasn’t always comfortable or safe: He boiled eggs in volcanic hot springs, and wrestled with greasy tough guys in Eastern Europe, and ate ammonia shark, and dived in murky waters, and didn’t always enjoy it and sometimes enjoyed it more than he thought he would. And we took note. And maybe because of it we traveled to places we didn’t plan on, and did things we didn’t think we could do and certainly ate and drank things we might not have tried.
Anthony Bourdain seemed to have the perfect job, if not the perfect life. He could experience things his way and then illuminate them, creating voiceovers with his New Jersey accent and talented writer’s words. He was a gifted listener who could soulfully portray the world around us. All of it. We felt we could could trust him.
And despite his keen mind, creative talents, philosophical bent and privileged celebrity we knew he was a reformed bad boy with a grin, who smoked too much and drank too much, fought substance abuse and took risks.
He and his crew were trapped in Beirut in July 2006, during a war in Lebanon that lasted just 32-seconds. The unexpected show that came out of that experience was nominated for an Emmy, and seemed life-changing. “I like food. It was the center of my life for thirty years and I’ll always look at the world through that prism, but it is not the only thing,” he said after.
In 2013, Peabody Award judges honored his CNN series “Parts Unknown” for as they said, “expanding our palates and horizons in equal measure …. He’s irreverent, honest, curious, never condescending, never obsequious. People open up to him and, in doing so, often reveal more about their hometowns or homelands than a traditional reporter could hope to document.”
I’ve been in the travel world a long time, hanging out with well-known travel writers from Jan Morris to Rick Steves, and I’m not normally starstruck. But Tony Bourdain was one of a kind, and I always hoped if there were any chance of meeting him, I could make it happen.
But he left us too soon. And by taking that final journey reminds us that success does not always mean contentment and that we should be good to ourselves and alert to our problems and moods, and to those of others. (The suicide hotline, open 24-hours, is 1-800-273-TALK.)
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he once mused. “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.”
We will not be able to see the world ahead through his eyes, but fellow travelers, in his memory let’s go out there and be kind and curious, respectful and open-minded as we travel, and as we live. And also, let’s have fun and not forget a message he often mentioned: Enjoy the ride.