Puerto Rico

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mr. Bourdain and I

By Marisa Mohi, thinker of thoughts and dreamer of dreams

I don’t think I’m the only woman on this planet that has a crush on Anthony Bourdain. I find the idea of traveling to be simultaneously intriguing and sexy—you know, the sort of intellectual sexy that people associate with black-framed glasses and quoting Dylan Thomas poetry. Also, being on the Travel Channel has boosted his sex appeal in my eyes. I mean, I guess I’ve already mentioned the absurd love I feel for Adam Richman. I’m really just waiting for one of these handsome men to find me and offer me a big ol’ diamond ring. But until then, I suppose I’ll continue with my graduate coursework…hence the rest of this blog.

(I promise, the digressions will be a little less, well…digressionary from here on out.)

So, back to Mr. Bourdain. His show ,“No Reservations”, has become somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon. I can’t go anywhere without hearing somebody talk about the one episode where he drank homemade liquor in Greece, or the time that he was the lone white man in Saudi Arabia. Also, his book, Kitchen Confidential, is nicely situated in the “to-be-read” pile on my bookshelf. The thing about his show and his books that I found so monumentally appealing, is the “behind-the-scenes” look he gives you of the worlds he presents. It’s almost like he makes you one of the locals, or, as in the case of his book, a member of the kitchen staff.

To me, this is what traveling should be.

People who head out to Jamaica to sit at a lame-o upper middleclass, all expenses paid, adult daycare center aren’t really travelers. To me, these folks are still living in the colonial era. (I say this only because I have a degree in English, and well, the Postcolonial theory was always my favorite.) But traveling to an area that is completely different than your home country and then only staying in an area that has been made to mimic the overly American ideal of paradise, complete with five-star hotels and surgically enhanced trophy wives parading in leopard print bikinis isn’t really getting out of your country club comfort zone, now is it?

Bourdain (my homeboy as I call him, especially when I want people to think that I’m cool and cultured and hang out with world travelers even though I pretty much just chill back in Oklahoma) subscribes to a school of thought known as the anti-conquest method of travel writing. Now, not to get too pretentious for all you folks out there in the floating ether la la land that is the interwebs, but I’m gonna lay down some knowledge. Get ready. Academic notions ahead!

Anti-conquest travel writing is the sort of travel writing that doesn’t separate the visitor from the visited. That is, the traveler immerses himself/herself in the culture he is visiting. In doing this, the traveler isn’t able to take the perspective of the outsider and pass judgements on the culture he/she is visiting. He/she isn’t assimilating his/her surroundings into his/her frame of reference. In this way, the traveler functionally presents the culture as it stands, without conquering it with his/her own cultural ideals.

Maybe this is why Mr. Bourdain is totally my homeboy. I love the way that wherever he goes, he jumps into the culture headfirst and does what the locals do. I’ve never seen him refuse food on the basis that it may be a little sketchy. I’ve never seen him refuse alcohol even though, by western scientific standards, it may be rocket fuel. I’ve never seen him refuse to join the party because he doesn’t speak the language. This is the essence of anti-conquest travel. This is what traveling should be.

We can’t look down our noses at people and claim that their quality of life is deplorable, all from the comfort of our ivory balconies of our seaside resort. Without getting too preachy, it’s these kinds of resorts that under develop islands like Jamaica. If you’ve never seen the documentary, Life and Debt, you should check it out. If it doesn’t make you hate big resorts that function as the governor’s mansion on the colonial plantation, then you probably need to reevaluate your values and morals.

I guess, in the end, we are only one world. I feel just as connected to strangers as I do to my family. Though I love my family, I know that the strangers I see as I travel could become a part of my family some day. There are no real strangers in this world, only potential friends. That is why when we travel, we can’t look at those we encounter as “the others"--this isn’t an episode of Lost. This is the human race. We aren’t here to conquer it.

So, as I make my way through Puerto Rico, I try to keep these thoughts in mind. I'm already the farthest I've ever been away from my home and family. The comfort zone is left far behind. There is nothing left to do but enjoy the time I have in the place I am with the people I'm with the way that the people who live there do.

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