So did empathy. For four and a half months I have been on the road by myself, experiencing just a taste of Mr. Bourdain’s life of the past two decades. Traveling is a beautiful privilege but it is also incredibly lonely. You’re in new environments constantly, you feel untethered from a support system, and sometimes you even forget who your support system is. Lives move on, and often away from yours, when you’re on the road and working intensely. I’ve found that the push-pull of seeing loved ones and having them leave, or having to leave them, can be harder than not seeing them at all. Talking on the phone with my therapist is some of the most important work I do every week.
People tell you often that you have a dream job, and you feel some obligation to keep up that fantasy for them, to not show the cracks. I can’t imagine what pain Mr. Bourdain was dealing with, but I do know what it’s like to have to go home to a hotel room in a city where I know no one and wrestle with mine. Always going first can wear on a soul.
Jada Yuan is traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list for The New York Times.
I like to imagine that Anthony Bourdain spent at least a few hundred nights over the course of his life in a similarly nondescript hotel room like where I currently am, futzing with the electric outlet by the bed, and pecking out words on a laptop while the moon rises over Jakarta, or Buenos Aires, or Istanbul. Fighting jet lag, fighting loneliness.
He had seemingly carved out for himself the gig of a lifetime, and paved the way for a lot of us who have also been lucky and able to make careers traveling and exploring different countries and cultures. I think that’s what makes this loss particularly confusing and devastating, and why so many have been compelled to share photos taken with him, personal experiences, and stories about the times they hung out with him. For many of us, he was not just another writer or personality to admire. He was literally who we wanted to be. And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?
I don’t know the answer to that, nor do I understand the extent of his pain and internal battles. But I know that, as a traveler and writer, I owe him a lot. I probably owe him more than I realize. Bourdain didn’t invent food and travel journalism, but he made it so exciting. He was like the one high school history teacher you had that made you feel like learning was actually fun. His voice was raw, and it was unique. And he took that voice, hooked it up to an old amplifier he’d jury-rigged with twine and electrical tape, and blasted his message to every corner of the world.
The message was uncomplicated: Go to the place. Eat the thing. Talk to the person. Mr. Bourdain made you want to spend weeks in places you never would have thought to visit, and devour plates of food you may never have before dared to try. He made the unapproachable look appealing; the daunting look downright attractive. The first season of his CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” went to places like Myanmar, Libya, and Congo. By challenging the idea of what a travel show could be and where it could go, he accomplished more than just good TV; he helped give a voice to places and people that were absent or underrepresented in media. And that made the world a more understanding, more curious, and kinder place.
Mr. Bourdain knew better than anyone that travel and food were the two things that could hope to heal a fractured world. I always appreciated his honesty; he managed to be hopeful without sugarcoating reality. He understood there was both great beauty and great ugliness in the world and dared to present both to us. He didn’t equivocate or euphemize, and he championed and defended regular people.