Sunday, September 17, 2023

Anthony Bourdain helps me focus my travel bucket list, Part 1

I’m reading World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, which was published after famed chef Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide. His co-author compiles Bourdain’s impressions and here is some of the good stuff.

Buenos Aires, Argentina has a “quirky, unique character” that looks and feels like no other place, with “a sad, sweet quality” that Bourdain liked. Everyone there goes to psychotherapy and there “are more headshrinkers per capita than anywhere else in the world.” I’m not sure Tony sells me.

Melbourne, Australia is not at all like the Crocodile Dundee, Fosters, shrimp-on-the-Barbie stereotype portrayed in the movies. It is more like “San Francisco without the fog.” There is a mixed culture of Chinese, Vietnamese, Greek, and Lebanese and, if you visit, you are required to get a bratwurst at the Queen Vic Market. But even better sounding to me is the true Sichuan that it’s possible to get in Melbourne. It’s spiciness hurts but it’s nearly impossible not keep wanting more. Bourdain likes the turquoise blue water and sunny beaches of Sydney as well, not to mention the mud crabs and cooked lobster, but he didn’t like the city as much as Melbourne. I’m sold; Australia remains very high on my bucket list.

Vienna Ferris wheel
Vienna, Austria was a place Bourdain was initially ambivalent about, like “any country where they speak German,” but that was slowly replaced by enchantment. It’s a city with a rich cultural history, including musicians Johann Strauss, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler, as well as artists like Gustav Klimt, and also Sigmund Freud. Public transit, called Wiener Linien, is comprehensive, excellent, and easy. In the Prater, one of the city’s large public parks, there is an amusement park with the world’s oldest (1897) Ferris wheel, which appeared in Orson Welles’ The Third Man. He also says to not miss the Naschmarkt, a huge outdoor market where pork and cheese are must buys. I somehow didn’t make it to Vienna when my brother and sister-in-law lived there, but my excuse was that was mostly during the pandemic. I still want to get someday.

Bhutan penis art
Bhutan, high in the Himalayas and between India and Tibet, is a place where limited visitors are allowed and tourism only began there in the 1970s. The cliffs and mountain passes are stunning and half of the country’s GDP comes from hydropower. Its international airport is considered possibly the most dangerous to fly into in the world. Largely untouched by man’s destruction of the earth, the capital and largest city Thimphu has been drawing many from the countryside and is beginning to show environmental pains. That said, the momos (dumplings) are a favorite. So too is the mountain village of Punakha, where there is a plethora of penis paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Bhutan has long celebrated the phallus, ever since Drukpa Kunley led the community 500 years ago as a lama, holy man, Buddhism spreader, and madman. I would love to get there, but it sure doesn’t sound like an easy trek.

Salvador, Brazil
Salvador, Brazil is, however, a place I have been. Bourdain raves about this city on the northern coast, with its sounds of drums, where “things seem to just sway and move constantly,” and where “everybody is sexy.” It was once Brazil’s capital and remains the capital of the state of Bahia. In 1558, it was the inauspicious first place where slave ships landed in the New World from West Africa. I recall riding the Elevador Lacerda, which is a public elevator “that connects the lower and upper levels of the city.” I also remember drinking caipirinhas all across the city, including from vendors on the beach, with one bartender originally from Portugal turning us on to these drinks made with kiwis rather than limes, which is a brilliant twist on the national cocktail. “Shaken, not stirred, and you’ve got yourself one of the world's truly great cocktails,” Bourdain correctly noted. I would go back to Salvador in a heartbeat, maybe adding a leg in the Amazon, the main place I have yet to travel in beautiful Brazil.

Ankor Wat
Cambodia is another place I’ve been, having journeyed there in 2009 with my wife and nearly-two-year-old son. Like Salvador, this country has an evil and awful history, since Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in 1975 and killed 1.7 million people in a quest “to create an ultra-Marxist agrarian wonderland.” Those not killed were forced into slavery and marched into “the killing fields” surrounding the city and to work the land. Vietnam invaded to end the madness in 1979, but some of Pol Pot’s cronies still remain in positions of power. The ugly is balanced with the marvelous when traveling through Cambodia. Bourdain remembered “the smell of jackfruit, woodsmoke, dried fish, raw chicken, breakfast,” and the pho-like ka tieu. I remember, at Siem Reap, the floating village was astounding, with shops and markets and schools and taxis and everything else you can imagine situated on boats and platforms in the water. I also of course remember Ankor Wat, the crumbling kingdom in the jungle built in the twelfth century. Get to this country if you can.

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