Bourdain Fulfills His Congo Dream

By Karen

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.

25 Responses to Bourdain Fulfills His Congo Dream

  1. Imabear says:

    Glad Tony finally got to make this trip. The blog is quite eloquent. Some years ago I read Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari” chronicling his journey through Africa and I confess, I was thrilled not to be with him – reading the book was depressing enough. But someone needs to shine a light on these oft-ignored places so we know what’s going on. Sadly it is often so difficult for us to relate to, as we read/see this foreign way of life from our comfortable middle-class American perspective. It is something that most of us literally cannot imagine.

  2. adele says:

    I’m back. Just didn’t feel much like writing after Alice died.

    Karen, you’re so right about AB morphing from traveling wise cracking eater to cultural anthropologist/journalist (not that he’d ever say that about himself). While I hope to stroll through France or Spain or England with him again, this new aspect of his TV persona is welcome, and he;s so far proven himself up to the task.

    The situation in the DRC is so incredibly complicated that no TV show could possibly address it in its entirety — and I doubt that many Americans would sit through a multi hour documentary. But Tony did a real service by focusing attention, even for an hour, on this benighted place, where rape is used to govern by all of the rebel groups. I knew the Belgians were cruel masters, but I had no idea of their genocidal might — 10 million people in 20 years!

    The ZPZ crew did themselves proud. Just as Tony has upped his game on CNN, their already superb photography just keeps getting better. On the one hand I can’t wait to see more from them, and on the other hand, I worry about all of their safety. I wonder when the next season starts.

    I like to read history, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to understand the wages of colonialism. This task is impossible, not only because of its enormity, but because I’m never sure of the reliability of what I’m reading — it’s hard once you’re no longer in school. I would recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, however; it’s a novel about a missionary family living in Congo at the time of independence. It’s very well written, and it gives some emotional understanding.

    Last night was a good TV night — the Congo and the absolute best episode of Mad Men this season.

  3. catsworking says:

    Adele, I and all the cats send their condolences on the passing of sweet little Alice.

    I have to admit that I have very little interest in Africa. For some years, in my day job I was writing appeals for an international child welfare organization that did a lot of work in places like Kenya and Uganda, and I read enough horror stories about conditions to make my hair stand up. The problems are so vast and intractable, who knows where to begin?

    I’m worried about the ZPZ gang’s safety as well. Now that they’ve checked off the Congo, are they going to try even riskier places?

  4. adele says:

    Dorothy and I thank the Cats Working staff for condolences. I’m so glad I took Dorothy in two years ago. She’s turned out to be a wonderful cat and was a great friend to Alice.

    I’m just hoping the ZPZ gang stays out of places like Syria and Yemen and Mali.All in all, this first season of Parts Unknown, Tony and ZPZ certainly did themselves proud.

    I’m interested in the results of colonialism, although I find it really hard to read about present-day rape and child soldiers, etc. What (if you can say) child welfare organization did you work for? I had some passing knowledge of the international organizations because of international adoptions gone bad.

  5. catsworking says:

    Adele, I’d rather not say who the client was. I no longer have them. But if I told you, you’d recognize the name. They advertise nationally, and back when you were working, Sally Struthers was probably their spokesperson. She’s also been replaced. Their mission wasn’t to mediate adoptions, but to support children through monthly sponsorship.

  6. Trisha says:

    I too am liking the more educational, informative bent of AB’s episodes that includes socio-political info and history. I knew the Congo was totally f’ed up given my interest in the Gorilla situation – in fact I’ve been wanting to do a Gorilla trek in Rwanda but was hesitant given that it borders the DRC. But I had no idea that Belgium was involved (I’m so not a history person).

    What I don’t get is why AB was so hot to travel on the Congo river – I could understand wanting to do so in the 50s or 60s, but today? Being exposed to the elements on a small boat with lighting issues, huge swarms of bugs and cooking up/eating a bunch of diseased looking birds and spam for dinner would be my personal hell – you’d have to pay me quite a bit to go on that boat. Of all places on earth why did he romanticize that one? I could understand being desperate to travel say Halong bay in Vietnam bc it’s beautiful, but the scenery along that river bank did nothing for me. To each his own.

    Also loved seeing him start to lose his temper with the light situation and inability to get the food prepped. lol

  7. catsworking says:

    Trisha, since he referenced it in the show, I’m sure he’s seen The African Queen and may know something of the absolute hell Hepburn and Bogart endured to make it. And things on that river haven’t changed a bit since the 1950s, by the looks of it.

    For me, getting roughed up in the airport by the TSA is about all the discomfort I’m willing to endure. I want proper bathrooms and I don’t want to have to kill my own food.

    Branching out from food is something he’s needed to do for a long time, and it’s really good to watch him spread his wings at CNN.

  8. Fung says:

    Congo was uninteresting and Bourdain was patronizing. Been all over Southern Africa with so much to relate. Never had to sit through an hour of produced enertainment with such an articulate host who so little to show. Yawn. Oooooh, sawing chicken heads…. Muddy water…. Gawking natives… Amazing

  9. Zappa's Mom says:

    Adele,I’m so sorry to hear about Alice passing away.Zappa sends his kitty condolences as well.

  10. catsworking says:

    Welcome, Fung. Yes, I’m sure if you’ve been there, done that, Bourdain barely scratched the surface. But he knows that. China and Africa are 2 places that leap to mind which are so vast and complex, NOBODY could do them justice, even with a lifetime of TV.

    Glad I missed the sawing chicken heads bit. Whenever he starts doing unspeakable things to animals, I leave the room. (Yeah, I’m a hypocrite that way, because I’m not a vegetarian.)

  11. Trisha says:

    “Oooooh, sawing chicken heads…. Muddy water…. ” Yea I see your point, Fung. I saw the whole chickens + boat thing as one of those totally ‘produced for TV’ segments, kind of like when AB was floating aimlessly around on the Nile and his boat broke – done purely for filler and pretty shots, completely unnecessary and not adding anything informative.

    Did AB need to go on that boat down the river? No. Did I learn anything about Congo (other than the moth situation) by him doing so – nope. It always bugs me when hosts kill animals to make ‘good tv’ – since the entire boat trip was something done purely to satisfy a desire on AB’s part, everything on that boat trip was fluff IMO.

    With just one hour, he should fill it with the most interesting informative content possible. Going on a joy (or IMO, hell) ride on a river, particularly when you’re covering a location with far more info that you could ever cover, seems like a huge waste. I understand AB has certain travel wishes, we all do (I want coco vin on a boat on the Congo, waah!!) but he should do them on his own time, not the viewers’. If he’s going to waste air time bitching about being unable to cut up chicken in the dark he may as well be filming from his NY apt during a blackout.

    Karen — they didn’t really show the chickens necks being sawed – they put their heads down in some sort of funnel thing, so all you saw was blood.

  12. catsworking says:

    I have to say Tony lost me when he was sitting on that boat and the words “coq au vin” came out of his mouth. REALLY? You’re sitting on a filthy, bug-infested river, IN THE DARK, and you want to make French food?

    It would have made more sense (and been much safer gastronomically) for him to open a bunch of cans and whip up something delicious without all the killing.

    I came back briefly during the preparation and heard something about bleeding out the chickens. Then I heard him bitching about cutting them up, and I think he got a machete, so I left until they were eating.

    If you want to split hairs, EVERYTHING about these travel shows is contrived to some extent. Otherwise, they’d just stand on a corner with a camera.

    Bourdain does readily admit his shows are self-indulgent, and he only covers what he personally finds interesting. His Congo River obsession was totally hare-brained, and I hope he’s got it out of his system. He’s had a bug up his ass for a while now about showing us where our food comes from, which is why he films animals being butchered every chance he gets.

    I’m sorry, but I’m far too delicate a flower to watch any of that. 😉

  13. catsworking says:

    Well, the ratings for that Congo episode are in, and they aren’t pretty.

    Bourdain was competing against some big NBA game and the Tony Awards, but I think the lesson to be learned here is that you can never underestimate Americans’ lack of interest in places like the Congo.

  14. adele says:

    Thanks ZM and Zappa. Dorothy and I are still really sad. I keep trying to paste a picture of Alice so you can see how pretty she was, but Luddite that I am, I can’t figure out how to make it work.

  15. lotte says:

    I just want to make a point here. I really wish people would stop referring to Tony B and his ilk as cultural anthropologists or journalists. They are not. Both professions require years of training and real fieldwork, not a 2 week or 10 day trip which relies on “fixers” for background information. Anthropologists typically spend years living with people whose lives they study, not a week filming themselves living out their romantic fantasies. Real journalists face real danger, which is why so many of them were killed last year. There is a plce for shows like this but don’t confuse them with real knowledge.

  16. catsworking says:

    Welcome, lotte. Your point is well-taken. I’m sure none of us intended to belittle the REAL anthropologists or journalists by throwing those titles around. Bourdain would be first to concede that he’s neither. In fact, he doesn’t even consider himself a chef, if you want to compare him to the superstars he usually associates with who run their own empires.

  17. MorganLF says:

    Adele sorry about Alice. There’s a reason I don’t keep pets anymore, it’s too painful.

  18. chinagirl says:

    Interesting posts people. Trisha and Fung well said. Lotte your point is well taken. Sorry Karen but while Bourdain seems to concede that he is not a chef or an anthropologists or journalists he wants us to believe he is. Love how he has become a CNN yes man and so quickly. He actually cursed and then turned to the camera and said “sorry”! His show seems to be more controlled than A Cooks Tour or NR.

  19. Trishia says:

    Was it AB who actually called himself a cultural anthropologist or travel channel? I know he’s called himself an travel essayist. I agree w/ Lotte and Chinagirl – he’s no ‘expert’. How anyone ever put together AB (with no prior travel experience) + insider book about NY restaurants = travel show/expert is odd to me, but there you go. Seems there are so many on TV who just magically become “experts” when they rarely are, but audiences don’t question it. E.g., how on earth are Juliana Rancic and Kelly Osbourne (Fashion Police) qualified to critique celebrity outfits? Let alone Joan Rivers who dresses like Liberace.

    Another example of this is the former host of Dirty Jobs. After a stint at QVC, this guy by his own admission worked just 6 mons of each year by choice doing voiceovers, commercials and other easy TV ‘work’. Then suddenly bc he attempts to do real people’s ‘dirty jobs’ for an hour of TV a week, he’s testifying before Congress and being interviewed by the WSJ about America’s infrastructure and issues surrounding blue collar jobs, when in reality he’s never worked a ‘dirty job’ in his life.

    “He’s had a bug up his ass for a while now about showing us where our food comes from”

    He’s showing us where their (meaning extremely poor people in third world regions) food comes from – which is actually more humane than here. Those chickens had it made vs. those in say, a typical N.C. factory.

  20. catsworking says:

    Bourdain as travel essayist I’m fine with. I could be wrong, but I don’t think he’s gone so far as to call himself a cultural anthropologist. It just doesn’t sound like something he’d say. He’s always getting labels hung on him, like “bad boy chef,” even “celebrity chef.” He stopped cooking as soon as he earned notoriety for KC and got the TV gig. Before that, his work at Les Halles didn’t put him in the ranks of “celebrity chefs.”

    Food Network must have been looking for someone who knew about food who wouldn’t mind being on the road most of the time, and he went for it.

    It is amazing how Americans will tag somebody an “expert” or even an “icon” with the merest wisp of credentials.

    Look at the no-talent kids who mysteriously become big pop stars screeching the tuneless, witless shit that’s passes for “music” these days.

    Or the poorly written, poorly edited, unproofread books that become bestsellers. Twilight? Fifty Shades of Grey? Puleez.

    We’re up to our eyeballs in mediocrity.

  21. Trisha says:

    OH god don’t get me started on 50 Shades. I could not believe that any editor even glanced at that crap bc the same words and phrases are repeated ad nauseum, sometimes several on the same page. I couldn’t even finish it – only read a quarter of it. I kept going back to my three volumes of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Now that’s great fiction with a feminist heroine who kicks ass.

  22. catsworking says:

    Trisha, I read the first 50 Shades and had no desire to read the 2 sequels. HOW that book became a bestseller is a testament to the dumbing down of everybody. It was too redundant to even pass for decent porn.

    I also read the 3 books in the Dragon Tattoo series and LOVED them. Lizbeth Salander RULES!

    I’m so bummed that the author died. I read somewhere there’s a fourth manuscript and his common-law wife has it or could finish it because she knows what he intended to do with it, but she won’t give it up because his father and brother are trying to grab all the money from his estate.

  23. MorganLF says:


    I’ll take my cultural anecdotes from Bourdain ANY day. He is articulate, EXTREMELY well read and I agree with his point of view.

    The fact that he man is curious and does not pontificate, yet drills into areas once considered the bailiwick of historians, makes me all the more interested.

    In other words…. he is clever and I have learned much from watching his shows. As a self proclaimed auto didact with little more than a high school diploma, I do not defer to anyone with an advanced degree.

    I tried college, it could not keep up with me, so I split cause I had shit to do.

    I can hold my own on any topic that amuses me and rarely lose an argument….just read the archives of this blog.

    Point out to me who is more qualified ( and entertaining)? The man has BEEN THERE usually on several occasion. His observations are supplemented with well written narratives. He attended a prestigious prep school and made it into an equally prestigious college, that he screwed up in, largely because of his association with his ex- wife and her dissolute, arrogant, druggy crowd.

    His rise to fame was not ” magical” as you state, it was based on a defined skill set. He wrote a clever book and parlayed that skill into a new career…like say the equally uncredentialed, Edison, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

    Besides, you actually expended energy on 50 Shades of Grey?

    Oh pleeeeze .. Talk to the hand girl.

  24. trisha says:

    Morgan clearly I’m a fan of AB or I wouldn’t watch his show regularly. I enjoy it very much. My point was simply that overall in this culture, we seem to be all too wiling to knight people as ‘experts’ simply because they’re famous. It also seemed a disconnect to me that given the topic of KC, he’d springboard from that to a travel show when at that point he hadn’t been anywhere.

    I also never claimed AB’s entire rise in his career was ‘magical’. What I have always maintained is that if the story is true that a friend from college with publishing connections approached him with an offer to go to an island destination for free to finish his novel, which they then published, that is lotto-win territory. How many people does THAT happen to? It’s not like he was busting his hump sending the manuscript out to everyone under the sun w/ no takers (as JK Rowling did).

    I wouldn’t call reading 30 pages of 50 Shades ‘expending energy’ – I had no idea when I bought the book that it was a piece of crap. Intelligent, accomplished women I know were reading it – they never mentioned that it sucked; they seemed to be enjoying it. Clearly I vastly overestimated their taste. I’ve read good erotica and I remain baffled why so many women in this country seem blind to its existence, reacting to 50 as if it was the only book of its kind available to them, as if they were dying of dehydration and that book was the only water.

  25. 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?

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