It’s a very special moment when you arrive someplace, look around at a vista that is clearly, awe-inspiringly fantastic and realize: “Holy ****! Almost no one else has SEEN this!”
After many years of looking at some pretty impressive vistas, I have to be honest: It makes it better. Let’s face it, the first French dude to push aside some jungle brush and look upon Angkor Wat was probably a hell of a lot more excited about it than I was. (And I was pretty excited). It’s a greedy, selfish instinct—the notion that this is all for you, that you are singularly fortunate to have seen this—that you—and only you, get ALL the cake.
I don’t know what Hiram Bingham thought when he looked up at Macchu Piccu for the first time. He certainly hadn’t “discovered” the place. He was probably just the first non-Indian to have gazed upon it. But I’ll bet he felt pretty smug about his accomplishment. “Will you look at that! Wow! And it’s been here all along! Dumb bastards been traipsing through these parts for centuries and they missed THIS!”
That’s kind of how I felt looking out at the ancient temple complex of Bagan in Myanmar. An unlovely instinct, I grant you. But like I said; I get to see a lot of beautiful vistas. Way too many of them, after all these miles, take on the importance of moving wallpaper. So it’s something really special to be thrilled by ruins—hair stand-up-on-back-of-neck- excited by a view.
Of course, plenty of visitors have been through Bagan over the years. But for Americans, the country now known as Myanmar has been mostly a place to avoid. I’ve avoided it for years—in spite of a terrific curiosity about the place— because I didn’t want to help a very unpleasant, totalitarian government stay in power.
But things have really started to shift in Myanmar. It’s still a military regime in charge. They are still up to some very nasty business in the parts of the country they do not let Westerners go. But the people are now, for the very first time in over half a century, relatively free to speak their minds. From a society where huge segments of the daily papers were routinely—and without explanation—hacked out by censors, where having an opinion could be a very dangerous thing..and where just about everybody with an opinion has been to jail—it’s pretty remarkable to see what’s happening.
Most remarkable, I think, was how open people were with us—how willing they were to talk –how not shy they were with our cameras, when only a little over a year ago, talking with a Western film crew could land you in prison. The door is opening in Myanmar—and we are very proud to show you some of what’s happening inside.
Before I set out to travel this world, 12 years ago, I used to believe that the human race as a whole was basically a few steps above wolves.
That given the slightest change in circumstances, we would all, sooner or later, tear each other to shreds. That we were, at root, self-interested, cowardly, envious and potentially dangerous in groups. I have since come to believe — after many meals with many different people in many, many different places — that though there is no shortage of people who would do us harm, we are essentially good.
That the world is, in fact, filled with mostly good and decent people who are simply doing the best they can. Everybody, it turns out, is proud of their food (when they have it). They enjoy sharing it with others (if they can). They love their children. They like a good joke. Sitting at the table has allowed me a privileged perspective and access that others, looking principally for “the story,” do not, I believe, always get.
People feel free, with a goofy American guy who has expressed interest only in their food and what they do for fun, to tell stories about themselves — to let their guard down, to be and to reveal, on occasion, their truest selves.
I am not a journalist. I am not a foreign correspondent. I am, at best, an essayist and enthusiast. An amateur. I hope to show you what people are like at the table, at home, in their businesses, at play. And when and if, later, you read about or see the places I’ve been on the news, you’ll have a better idea of who, exactly, lives there.
"Parts Unknown" is supposed to be about food, culture and travel — as seen through the prism of food. We will learn along with you. When we look at familiar locations, we hope to look at them from a lesser-known perspective, examine aspects unfamiliar to most.
People, wherever they live, are not statistics. They are not abstractions. Bad things happen to good people all the time. When they do, hopefully, you’ll have a better idea who, and what, on a human scale, is involved.
I’m not saying that sitting down with people and sharing a plate is the answer to world peace. Not by a long shot. But it can’t hurt.
Hotel El Minzah, Tangier