Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Detrimental Tourist

No journey is truly aimless. There is always some ineluctable force that drives us this way or that, with or without an itinerary. Explorers without maps usually had some goal, even if it was nothing but to get to the other side. Most of the time, whether we're aware of it or not, choosing a direction is a moral decision, a choice that we make purposely. Robert Frost found two roads diverging in a yellow wood, and took one. But he wrote a poem about the road he didn't take. It was the fact that he had to choose that made him wonder.

Over the past few years, I have watched most of the episodes of Anthony Bourdain's curious travel cuisine TV shows, No Reservations, Layover, and his award-winning CNN show, Parts Unknown. His pervasively world-weary tone gives his travels a strange feel, as if he were a very reluctant traveler. He is cynical, acerbic, and morose in places where we might dream of going, like Vietnam, Myanmar, Brazil, Russia, and right at home, it seems, in places like Cleveland and Detroit. He seems determined not to be surprised. He sounds like he's already seen it all, and is only seeing it again in order to get his jaundiced observations on the record. He is underwhelmed. He spends so much of his time dwelling on the things he doesn't like - complaining about the heat, the laws, the overcrowding, the language barriers - that by the time he settles down to eating a satisfyingly meal, which is the reason he went there in the first place, it hardly seems worth the trip.

He tells us proudly that he doesn't go where the tourists go - that he has never been to the Louvre or visited Big Ben or seen any of the "must see" sights of virtually any of the famous places he visits. Food is his true pursuit. Fellow chefs are often his guides through Europe, Asia, America North and South. But, watching his shows over the years, I notice how much of time his world-weary mood is the result of his heavy drink the night before. It seems like he looks at the world through the fog of a hangover. If you were to travel with Bourdain, you would be taking your liver into your hands. And he is sometimes open to taking other drugs, which might explain why his latest program, Parts Unknown, is blacked out to viewers in East Asia.

He is absolutely the last man I would choose to promote tourism to anywhere. I'm surprised he isn't banned from some places in the world, simply because his going there will automatically get it checked off many people's itineraries. Because, if there is one feeling that pervades Bourdain's video travels, to the back streets of Rangoon or Brazzaville, it is disdain. He reminds me of another travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once visited a Philippine island not far from the one on which I am living (if you can call this living). Theroux was left alone on the tiny, deserted island for a day and night, which inspired him to muse that he considered it his paradise, one whose most noticeable characteristic was the complete absence of people.

There is a story that Cicero related about a friend who returned from a vacation just as exhausted as he was when he departed. "Of course you are," Cicero told him. "You took yourself with you." I'll bet Bourdain writes things in his journal like, "Remember to be nauseated." He sometimes talks about his "bucket list." It must be the weirdest bucket list in existence. As Bourdain should know, Life - and especially a life of travel - isn't a stupid checklist of Things To Do Before One Dies. Too often in life, the phrase "been there, done that" only causes one to return, to be there and to do it again and again and again.

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