I've been discovering that the more I learn about food and travel, the more I want to learn about it. Somehow, there is a part of my brain that just clicks into action when I get the opportunity to do either, and preferably, both at the same time. So when I hear, and better yet get my hands on, anything new by ranconteur and outlaw, Anthony Bourdain, everything gets tossed aside until I can indulge in his latest adventures.
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, is his latest accounting of the strange and wonderful in the world around us. At first I thought it was going to be just another version of his splendid series of the same name on the Travel Channel. Happily, I was going to be surprised.
This time, we are treated to an opulently illustrated and photographed look at Bourdain as he wends his way through five continents and many countries. Some of the places he went to would prove to surprise him, and full of colour and vibrancy, others were the last stop before hell, and one in particular would shake him up. Each place is accompanied by a short essay and captioned pictures, and while he doesn't mention everywhere he's been in the series so far, what he does include has a point to it.
In addition to these travelouges, the reader gets to meet the hardworking and at times, suffering crew, that is with Bourdain on his crazed travels. Too, there are insights as to what is going on behind the scenes -- as when the episode is going rotten and there's nothing to stop it. Such as Iceland and Sweden, which are, bluntly, boring as hell and not much to do there besides get blasted out of one's skull. Or Namibia, one of the most awful places on Earth.
To balance that, there's Japan, China, India, Vietnam -- Bourdain has clearly 'gone bamboo' as they say, and fallen head over heels for parts of Asia, and I suspect will be spending more of his time there. It's in these chapters that he waxes lyrical and his prose takes on a nearly poetic quality.
And then, there is the section on Beruit.
If you read just one section of the book, read this one. Arriving on the eve of renewed Israeli bombing, Bourdain and his crew find themselves thrust suddenly into a war zone, and they might not get out. If you've seen this particular episode, you know what I'm talking about. Bourdain has some of his strongest writing here, and he gets damn good with it, capturing the uncertainty, the confusion, and most of all the regret that two days has in it. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
Then there is a lighter side to things to balance those dozen or so pages. Those who travel will find one section on bathrooms -- the best (Japan), and the worst (Uzbekistan) -- that is downright riotous. How to pack for a trip, and what is vital for survival -- hint: Imodium, an iPod, and aspirin are a necessity. How to find your way to the real food. How not to be an Ugly American.
Most of all, Bourdain shows his respect for the ordinary people here, in all of their many ways and thoughts. He might be profane in how he says it, and he won't be shy in telling you exactly how he thinks, but it's great fun along the way. He's got a wicked wit, an attitude that would shame the devil, and underneath -- he's in touch with his own humanity and fraility. It's refreshing to read in our world of craziness, where most celebrities hide behind a cosmetic mask and try to be perfect. Bourdain on the other hand, is brutally honest, and in the end, that's why I admire him. He's not putting on a con or an act, he's a traveller, and that's what makes him worth reading.
So settle in with your favorite drink of choice, forward your call for a few hours, and enjoy. No Reservations is a perfect little passport and snapshot of the more unknown parts of the world, heavily spiced with reality, and dished up with plenty of brazeness to give it all a bittersweet tang. Most of all, maybe you too will find a few places in here that you want to try for yourself in the future.
It's a big wide beautiful world out there, and Bourdain is the best of traveling partners. Five enthusiastic stars, and if Mr. Bourdain ever reads this, I for one hope that he will keep on writing.