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Anthony Bourdain and my introduction to responsible travel

By Kenzie Yoshimura

The Haiti episode of No Reservations has stuck with me over the years. Fascinated by both food and travel since a young age, I found the show’s host, Anthony Bourdain, a kind of rockstar; his quick-witted, often foul-mouthed narrative of his adventures and the food he tried along the way enthralled me. A former chef, he was an important television personality to me in a time when television was the only way I had been able to explore outside my own country.

The episode originally aired in 2011, a time when post-earthquake Haiti was already fading too quickly from mainstream media in the rest of the world, and many years before I would first hear the term responsible tourism. Bourdain and his crew arrived at the chaotic and colorful capital of Port-au-Prince where he immediately comments on the uninviting stares of the local passers-by, long wary of white people with cameras who have come to capture, to document – while real help still fails to arrive.

In the first minute of the show, Bourdain sits at a table across from his Haitian guides, talking through the situation he finds himself in. “I worry,” he says, looking them in the eyes. “Are we part of the problem?”

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This candidness was part of what marked Anthony Bourdain as a provocative journalist in addition to a talented chef. It was also the first time I had heard someone ask this question. Was there a dark side to travel? I had never considered it before.

At his first stop, Bourdain and his host swing by the best food stand in town, where a local woman serves them heaping servings of rice, beans, stew, and a Caribbean green called callaloo. As the men slather their hands with the hand sanitizer on the table in light of the cholera outbreak of the time, Bourdain asks how business has been. Not good, his host replies, translating for the owner of the stand. He explains that many people are out of work and have little money for food. Bourdain looks around at the growing crowd of hungry people around them and decides to buy out the rest of the food to feed them.

“Easy to make the situation better,” he narrates. “Fill the bellies of some cute kids! A good-hearted expression of kindness. We all go back to our hotel feeling really good about ourselves, right?”

“What happens,” he continues, “is both predictable, and a metaphor for what’s wrong with so much well-intentioned aid effort around the world.” A line forms within minutes, and fights break out as members of the hungry mob jockey for their plate of free food.

I was right there with Bourdain and his crew every step of the way and admired their generosity, thinking I would have done the same thing. From my home where I watched, the answer seemed so simple: feed the hungry. I was shocked to learn that I might be wrong, and even more shocked that this famous TV traveler I admired would share the errors of his ways so unabashedly with his viewers.

It turns out that traveling responsibly was often on Anthony Bourdain’s mind as he ate and drank his way around the world. In this interview, he talks about what he learned in the Haiti episode of No Reservations and the ethics of eating food in a country where many people can’t afford a meal. He speaks on the idea of unintended consequences and gives the example of introducing the world to a rural rice farmer on TV, compensating his well for his time. “How do his neighbors feel about that?” he asks. “Suddenly all these tourists are showing up. It’s not the same anymore. We think about those things. We try to do right. You learn over time.” Bourdain goes on to mention the efforts made while filming to minimize negative impacts, including details as small as how his camera crew hold their gear: lowered at the hip so their faces can be seen, so they can interact with people, instead of up on their shoulder, showing dominance.

As I learn more about the responsible tourism movement, I think a lot about what it means to be a traveler – how strange it is that we behave differently as a visitor in a foreign place than we might as a guest in someone’s home. Anthony Bourdain embodied what it means to be a respectful guest, educating oneself on a place by involving local people and asking questions – even the ones, that, as he puts it, have “no easy answers.” His critical thinking about his own travels compelled me to think critically about travel as a whole, and the complex issues of development and power that are intertwined with the tourism industry. In his legacy he leaves me a lot of hope for a future generation of more informed travelers; more compassionate human beings.

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The Travel Channel. Anthony Bourdain shares a family meal in Haiti