Parts Unknown’s first season wrapped on CNN last night with Anthony Bourdain sailing down the Congo River, a place he said he’s “dreamed of visiting before I ever thought I’d get the chance to travel the world.”
His inspiration came from reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he quoted quite a bit in the voiceover.
Knowing that Tony wanted to see this destination so badly made me want it to be all he hoped for (and for him to come out alive), but let’s face it — the true heroes of this piece were his camera crew. The opening montage alone managed to capture an astounding array of beauty, desolation, poverty, and joy.
Bourdain obviously has a much better grasp than most Americans of the mess over there, which one of his local contacts observed the world doesn’t hear much about on the news because it can’t be summed up in three minutes.
CNN is definitely morphing Bourdain from foodie into anthropologist/journalist. Given the dire circumstances of much of the population, he rightfully chose to use meals as punctuation in this story, rather than the main plot.
As he traveled through the jungle, it was amazing how many English-speaking people Tony met who seemed familiar with CNN. How?
He visited a railroad station where workers show up every day without pay to maintain a non-functioning facility, and an abandoned Belgian research center in the middle of the jungle where workers have been trying to preserve books without electricity for 20 years. One can only describe the Congolese as a proud people with a boundless capacity for hope.
Indeed, Bourdain summed them up as, “People waiting, hoping, for things to get better.”
But what’s better? Westernization? Starbucks or McDonald’s on every corner? Streets clogged with fanny-packing tourists? Jungle Wi-Fi?
Would those be improvements?
What remains to be seen is if Bourdain shining his light on Congo will make any difference. I hope it does. But then, what can the world do to right centuries of wrongs?
He got to take the two-day bug-infested voyage of his dreams on the Congo river, where he actually managed to squeeze in what has become the obligatory scene of killing, draining, plucking, and butchering chickens they’d brought along so he could make coq au vin.
The next day they dined on SPAM® and eggs.
This was probably the only hour of my life I’ll spend trying to understand the Congo, and it certainly hasn’t made it onto my short list of places to visit. But I really respect Bourdain’s efforts to get this large chunk of the world on our radar.
So now that Tony’s done the Congo, what next? What’s left?
Here’s what the man himself has blogged about it.