Anthony Bourdain was found dead on Friday, hanged in his hotel room. I saw his promo spots on CNN and his show Parts Unknown seemed right up my alley — off-the-beaten-path travel and food. But I never caught an entire episode.
I was very surprised at the outpouring of emotion for the man. An uncle of mine who didn’t own a passport watched his show. He told me it made him think of me and wonder what I was up to.
Not only my uncle and the world’s most esteemed personalities, but the out-sized sense of loss among the expat community in Latin America. Especially the American expats. So I looked into the man a little, and I wish I had done so a long time ago. He and we expat chroniclers are undoubtedly kindred spirits.
After decades in the restaurant business, Bourdain wrote a couple crime novels, which led to his publication in The New Yorker of an essay that would become the book that put him on the map. The essay, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, was a marvelous look at life in the kitchen and being an outcast. It led to a book deal which put him on the map as a celebrity chef. He later became famous for television shows on Travel Channel, Food Network and, ultimately, CNN. But what set him apart from other celebrities was his frankness and honesty, specifically about his flaws and drug abuse.
I still have a lot to learn about Bourdain. So this dedication is penned by Matt Rines, American expat in Bogota.
Anthony Bourdain, Humble yet Hardcore
Most expats have the travel bug like a deep-seeded illness. They dig stamps in their passport and share how many places they’ve been. But I’ve only lived in one country other than my own and only visited a couple more. Bourdain was an overseas constant, even while expats like me learn a new local peccadillo … Every. Fucking. Week. They tend to come right after you say to yourself, “I got this place figured out.”
Whether in writing, video or social media, Bourdain was always doing what he did best, demystifying. And he did it after recovering from 15-hour days chased away by heroin and nodding off on the beach. A recovery success story, or so I thought?
I don’t have a tattoo of the guy or anything, but I was a fan. He spoke it all, highs and lows, warts and sunshine, as if he knew some way that he needed to demystify himself to demystify the places and the food he showcased. He called himself a former “cook,” rather than a self-important “chef.”
Bourdain demystified the world better than anybody in the world or web. He demystified people from all over the world and made then seem reachable, made you believe that you could visit those places, enjoy and maybe even assimilate into them.
He demystified foreign places and food through a proud ignorance and genuine curiosity, followed up by an articulate assessment. He nudged so many of us abroad, or maybe nudged someone else who paid forward the nudge to one of us.
I first saw him on TV, before I read anything of his. He was on the Travel Network, and later CNN. He became famous with the publication of Kitchen Confidential and other books, and of course social media. Lately he was a strong advocate of the #MeToo movement.
I have some sort of secret. I can’t see too well. It’s no big deal, but it has made me sure of two things. The first is that when you’re told you may have either Devic’s syndrome or multiple sclerosis, you root real fucking hard for MS. I was disappointed there.
The second is that Bourdain did exactly the sort of stuff that caused me and a ton of others to seek life in another country.
When my eyes first started failing, I was miserable. That’s no sort of life for a man – bouncing from family to family and friend to friend, trying to overcome the fear of an awful future.
I never had the Robin Williams and now Bourdain kind of depression where your spirit is completely busted. I was more pragmatic, bummed and feeling sorry for myself, but for a reason. I didn’t want to live like that so I needed to find a cheaper but still decent life to suit my new lifestyle.
I had some high school Spanish still knocking around somewhere in my head. Spain was out due to cost, so it was Latin America or bust. Google helped me narrow it further, but I never would’ve made the leap to Colombia without Bourdain.
Why wouldn’t you try something as innocuous as food, just to see if you like it? And if you can try strange foods, why not try living in some place for a while? Every block of every city of every country in the world may be different but people, the good ones, are pretty similar. Bourdain was always teaching that concept, right up until the sad end.
Going abroad was one great decision I made, and it came as a last resort, a Hail Mary before going back to googling “dangerous protests” or trying to brainstorm ways to put myself directly in death’s path, so I wouldn’t have to face a wheelchair and pain, as most with my diagnosis end up.
It may sound noble, but it’s an attempt to martyr yourself. I didn’t want someone calling Grammy and Korean vet Grandpa to tell them their grandson offed himself because he couldn’t see too good. Going down for a good cause was more palatable.
I didn’t see this coming with Bourdain. It looks like he had another sort of depression, the broken spirit. It must’ve driven him to heroin and now apparently this. To literally think the world and especially your 11-year-old kid would be better off without you, that’s not selfish or short-sighted, that’s broken like an arm or a leg but much worse.
I used to hate when people would bash him for never giving a bad review to a place or a food, save Norway or wherever it is where they eat the fish after burying it and letting it rot for months. I hate that trendy-for-the-sake-of-trendy bullshit, hipster snobs who believe that something or someone can’t be good if it’s popular.
All of us living overseas owe Bourdain a somber nod. We’d all be better with him getting his passport stamped like hell, but I thank him for what he did while he was here. Here, there and everywhere else.
And for those living back home in the States, as I shudder seeing the rise in depression, state by state, please reach out. Reach out if you need out. Suicide is an irreversible solution to a temporary problem.
Follow Matt on Twitter.
Watch Parts Unknown Peru.
Watch Parts Unknown Colombia.
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