How Bourdain is giving us hope amid a pandemicJune 7, 2021
It is 2011 and winter in Austria has set in earlier than usual. By the late chef-author Anthony Bourdain’s own admission, his feelings towards Austria border on “ambivalence” and he makes no bones about it. For starters, the country brings back traumatic memories of that one Austrian barber, Helmut, who “butchered Bourdain’s hair as a child in his salon ironically decorated with murals of the serene Alpine Vista”. By and by, he eventually warmed up to Austria’s charms when he participated in their annual Krampus Day celebrations and was in awe of how eccentric, deliciously evil, and cult-like the celebrations were.
Similarly, his sheer repulsion for anything vegetarian went for a toss when he encountered the street food of Punjab and the local cuisine of Shimla. Almost all his experiences have essentially been in keeping with what he once famously said: “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
In 2018, fans of the rockstar chef-turned-traveller were gutted by his death. After enduring a Bourdain-shaped hole for three long years, they now have something to hold on to, thanks to the sustained efforts of his frequent collaborator and co-writer Laurie Woolever. Bloomsbury has recently published World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever.
Arranged alphabetically in chapters from Argentina to Vietnam, World Travel is peak Bourdain. At the onset, Woolever asks the readers and herself: “Did the world need another travel book and did we need to write it?” The genesis for the book, we learn, emerged during a casual conversation Bourdain had with Woolever in March 2017. The idea was to have “an atlas of the world as seen through his eyes and the lens of television”. They were to meet as frequently as they could and brainstorm on what places to add, which quotes needed explanation, the hotels to choose, the context, subtext, and everything in between.
But little did Woolever know, she would only get one meeting from the many planned brainstorming sessions before he passed away. In the introduction itself, Woolever confesses that “it is a hard and lonely thing to coauthor a book about the wonders of world travel when your writing partner, that very traveler, is no longer traveling that world.”
Assortment of experiences
The book is divided into bite-sized chapters—each one dedicated to a country Bourdain visited over the course of the last two decades. Each chapter gives a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the places he visited, how he got there, the food he ate, his witty opinions about the same, and the lessons (if any), he drew from these travels. It is certainly an “irreverent guide” as the title would have you believe.
Bourdain had originally planned to substantiate every chapter with detailed essays written by him originally for the book—his opinions on those countries that had banned him, his favourite shack in Kyoto by the side of the street, his infinite love for France among others. But after he was gone, Woolever had to rely on his friends, family, and acquaintances to write those essays and pen their shared experiences.
One of the most heartfelt essays is written by his brother, Christopher Bourdain, for the Uruguay chapter. We get a panoramic view into the story of how the brothers realised, quite funnily, that they were lied to by their father who had always told them that they were French. They were, after all, of Latino ancestry. To top it off — their great-great-grandmother was Uruguayan. In the essay for the book, Christopher describes the trip as a “brotherly joyride” and writes about eating in saloon-like places, having whole meat cooked by eccentric chefs, travelling in cramped trucks—it’s a riot for anyone who loves good food, adventure and travel.
At a time when travel bans are rife, and the tourism industry stares at an ambiguous future, Bourdain provides hope. He passed away three years ago on 8 June, long before COVID engulfed all things beautiful. For a post-COVID world, Bourdain’s piercing eye for warmth in the most unconventional of places must certainly inform and humble us.
The final chapter in World Travel dedicated to Vietnam touches upon one of his most memorable experiences where he dined with President Obama in Hanoi in a roadside shack selling cheap and delicious Vietnamese street food. Sitting on plastic chairs, and ventilated by an old rickety fan, they happily feasted on a couple of beers and bun cha – a mixture of grilled pork belly served with herbs, chillies, rice vermicelli, and a spicy, sour, sweet broth for dipping. Bourdain wittily describes this experience: “There is no better place to entertain the leader of the free world, in my opinion, than one of these classy, funky, family-run noodle shops you find all over Hanoi. Dinner and a beer costs about six dollars. I’m guessing the President doesn’t get a lot of state dinners like this.”
There is perhaps a lesson or two in there for all the fussy travellers of the world. Echoing a similar sentiment when he visited Mumbai, he insists that travellers come out of the sanitised cocoons of their luxurious hotels and get down and dirty with the aromas and flavours of places like Bhendi Bazaar and Khau Galli. To use his words: “If you’re lucky enough to travel to places like India, get out of the hotel and please try a few local specialities.”
While Rajasthan to him was nothing short of magic. “Of all the places in the world,” he fondly recollects, “it has perhaps the biggest heart and the most beautiful things to see.”
As he aptly notes in one of his previous books, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach: “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. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
As far as we are concerned, Anthony Michael Bourdain has undeniably left something good behind. And we’re here for it, now more than ever.