There’s a meme doing rounds online, it says that we all want travel but our bank accounts don’t want us to. Every time I saw that meme, I felt sad.
I have always been a voracious reader who really wanted to see the places I had read in books. I wanted to feel the Berlin wall, touch its with my palms and let all that history sink in. I wanted to see Istanbul, a place that feels like a beautiful, old lover. To roam the streets of Marrakesh in sandals. To see the shipwrecks on Namibia’s skeleton coast and perhaps visit the caves in the Kalahari Desert. It would also feel good to attend New Orleans’s Jazz Festival. Have you ever wanted to just pack up everything and make a run for it?
Then Bourdain died.
I saw the news on YouTube, but I had no idea who the guy was. So, I ignored it, just like any other deaths that don’t mean much to me. But the YouTube algorithm kept bringing it up. I finally had to watch it, and that’s how I came across Parts Unknown. I watched the Armenian episode and thought, well, this is not bad, I like this guy! So, I searched for more of it.
The more I watched, the more I liked how he spoke of the places he had been. I watched how accommodating he was, open-minded, caring and self-aware. Yet at the same time, he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d let you slap his other cheek. He had a spine. He was a made man, with a sketchy history. There would however, be no Bourdain without that history. From being a cocaine addict who’d once asked for a 25$ loan immediately after being hired in Bigfoot’s kitchen (Read his book, ‘Kitchen Confidential’), to being a travel journo and a celebrity chef.
Through Parts Unknown, Bourdain showed me the world.
I spent entire weekends watching Parts Unknown, episode after episode. From Uruguay, the small country with four times as many cows as people, that legalized recreational Cannabis way back in 2013.
Through Southern Italy, ‘a lawless land filled with folklore, tales of spirits and possession.’ There he interviewed Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He who brought Mario Puzo’s book, ‘The Godfather’, to life. I mused on how softly and slowly the man spoke. I think he’d make a good grandpa.
In Senegal, I couldn’t believe it when the residents of Dakar knelt in the afternoon sun and prayed on Friday at 2pm. An entire town shutting down and taking time to pray, that was new! There’s a way the Senegalese speak with the tenacity of people having a heated argument, that makes you expect fists to fly at any moment. But then the conversation eases with laughter, and you realize that it’s how they are.
It has never had a coup. It’s an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but it’s first president was a catholic. Marriage between Muslims and Christians is not a big deal there, to the extent that you don’t even know who’s Muslim and who’s Christian… I just don’t know what to make of the place, but I would definitely like to go there. And their food, my God! I was hungry all through that episode. It’s a very tolerant and deeply religious country that is full of surprises.
In ‘Japan With Masa’, the Japanese culture was laid bare to me. The best thing about that episode, for me, was tracing the roots of Masa Takayama; His early days as a Sushi apprentice at Ginza Sushi Ojima in Tokyo, where he mastered his skill rising through the ranks there for a period of seven years. Seven years to become a master chef! Seven years! Medical students in Kenya take that long to finally earn the right to be called a doctor. No wonder Masa is the best.
I liked how that episode ended, with Masa and his friends, people he’d known since high school, sitting around a fire, eating beef and drinking home-brewed Sake. Imagine sticking with your friends for forty-four years, I would want that. I’d want to grow old with my friends and see them do well in their lives. I’d want to sit with them by a fire and look back at our young ambitious selves and the little knowledge we had that made us think we were dangerous.
Oman blew me away. Maybe it’s because we share some history. In 1825, the Sultan of Oman, Said Sayyid, migrated to Zanzibar from where he ruled his empire, including Kenyan coastal possessions. We had a few things in common. Some of the food I saw in that episode was stuff that I could cook. I could have paused that episode and gone to buy chapati from a vendor in the streets.
Seeing a woman cry because their ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said was unwell, surprised me. I come from a country where we try to tolerate our leaders. Their leader had brought them from a dark past by deposing his father from power and ushering them into an age of splendor. I understood why they loved him that much. That’s what leadership should be, you put the interests of your people first and they’ll love you.
When he asked Aisha, a young woman, what her hopes and dreams were, the first thing she said was that she wanted to be satisfied with herself. That says a lot about how the women there are nurtured. Rather than being taught to sacrifice they are taught to put their well-being first. You can see it in their eyes, they are ambitious and want to do great things.
One day I will go to those places and others I have not mentioned here. Bourdain has left a mark on me as a young man just about to graduate from college. I want to see the world as he saw it, the beauty and ugliness.
I have this desire to go to places none of my ancestors have been before. I want to slather goat meat with spices, wrap it in banana leaves and let it cook over hot charcoal, buried under the earth just as the people in Oman do. To watch the modern world seep into Cuba. To go beyond the borders of my motherland. I am a millennial who just wants to go and keep going.