Going to the Gemba with Anthony Bourdain

Nepal old man

It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.
– Anthony Bourdain

Forty-five years ago, my parents uprooted our family from a comfortable existence in west Texas and moved to Peru, which at the time was in the middle of a military dictatorship. This was before the internet and Amazon, news and our usual comforts were hard to come by, and the heavily-armed police on every corner were a little disturbing. My sister and I weren’t exactly thrilled about leaving our friends and first world problems, nor did we appreciate seven years of visiting probably every nook and cranny in Latin America.

Now I am very, very thankful. The experience gave me a perspective of the world that has proven invaluable in life and my career, as well as a wanderlust that has led me to visit over 65 countries. I always encourage people to go overseas with their kids, even if just for a visit, as the experience is truly life-changing.

There were a lot of Americans in Peru at the time, thanks to the oil and copper industries, and we attended a large American school. I was on the swim team, which was often like a mini Olympics – we competed against the British, Japanese, and German schools. But we didn’t just hobnob with expats – my parents insisted that we spend a lot of time with typical Peruvians, at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. We’d take long trips on back roads through small villages, spend a Sunday afternoon tramping through a slum trying to find a furniture woodworker, and go to parties at the homes of dad’s local staff.

My wife and I have carried that concept with us when we travel – domestic and overseas. Instead of spending weeks planning how we’re going to hit all the tourist hot spots, we’ll often do a quick scan of a guide book on the plane over and perhaps a quick traditional tour the first day. Then we spend the rest of our time off the beaten path, trying to learn how typical people live. Yes, we miss a lot of museums, but I think we gain a more real understanding of the locale.

Some memories are truly special. We’ll always remember spending Christmas at an orphanage in Panama, sipping tea with villagers in the high mountains of Bhutan, touching old bullet holes in the walls of a new yoga studio in Bosnia-Herzegovina, visiting a hospital in Tanzania (that happens to apply lean principles – see the impromptu video series I filmed for Gemba Academy!), having a beer while listening to a concert in a small beach town in Cuba, and contemplating the incredible violence of years past while having a sunset drink at a café on the Mekong River in Laos.

The experiences change you. They are truly a gemba, as value is created there both for the local people and for us in terms of accurate perspectives on the world. Reality is often far different from what many people think it is, especially in the U.S. where so few people travel outside of the country, let alone continent. Sort of like running a factory from a conference room instead of visiting the shop floor.

The walls of our home are filled with photos of our travels, almost all with people. The old man in the photo above, taken in Dhulikhel outside of Kathmandu in Nepal, still haunts me. Take a moment and really look at the leathered skin, the tired eyes, and the gnarled hands.  You can almost feel the extreme hardship he’s endured. When I face a struggle I remember people like him and realize, again, how blessed I am to have the pure luck to be born where I was.

The passing of Anthony Bourdain in early June impacted me more than the death of any other celebrity, perhaps because I don’t really watch mindless TV or keep up with celebrities. Bourdain was an exception. We shared his love of food and travel, and especially how he went out of his way to connect with the local culture.

Over eleven seasons his Parts Unknown series visited 100 locations. Oftentimes we had already been where he went and could relive the experience, but several times he added new places to our wanderlist.

Lots has been written on how Bourdain struggled with his own demons. Maybe that’s why Bourdain was able to connect with people, creating real understanding, empathy, and compassion. And that’s why my wife and I connected with Bourdain’s show. In his travels he found what we also seek when we explore the world: a true understanding of the lives of people.

As Dave Infante wrote in his tribute to Anthony Bourdain,

We live in strange, dark times that often seem bereft of fellow-feeling. For many (me included), Bourdain was an ideal of how empathy and curiosity could be wielded against the world’s ignorance and fearfulness. He felt deeply. Now he’s gone, and we’re still here. We need to be people who feel things deeply. We need to interrogate our assumptions about the world and the strangers in it. We need to try to know each other.

Rest in peace, Anthony. Thanks for inspiring us to discover and connect with real people.

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4 Comments

  1. Barb Schultz

    June 29, 2018 - 9:28 am
    Reply

    what a wonderful tribute and testimonial to the benefits of travel. My youngest was privileged to have swam for Canada and was able to visit many parts of the world. Although never an honours student, she learned the power of being able to relate to people anywhere in the world and the confidence to go forth into the world without fear.
    This weekend is Canada Day where we celebrate our nationality. Thank you for the reminder to appreciate our lives here.

  2. Kevin Meyer

    June 29, 2018 - 10:17 am
    Reply

    Thanks, Barb. You said it perfectly with “the confidence to go forth into the world without fear.” Fear founded on the unknown, almost always unnecessary and often irrational, is unfortunately what drives many policies these days. Although I’ve traveled a lot, I still feel it at times. I remember just a couple years ago landing in Mozambique to visit my sister (yes, it runs in the family!) and realizing the country’s flag has a machine gun on it. That can’t be good. But we had a great time.

  3. Martin Schick

    June 29, 2018 - 11:53 am
    Reply

    Thanks for the post. Enjoyed your personal tribute to a fine man who we all, will more than we know miss. I sum up my life as you and many others that see cultures as invaluable, appreciative,. Yes, the world is a BIG place of many wonders just waiting to be appreciated for what they are, real, raw, good and evil, yet it’s our world and what we make of it. Simply put, every time you see and experience other people and cultures, you can’t help but be empathetic, you walk in their day-to-day and feel their joy’s (or triumphs) and struggles, just for the very-very simple things. Kevin, if you don’t mind, please continue to share your experiences and pictures!

  4. Robert hafey

    July 1, 2018 - 2:59 am
    Reply

    Kevin, Thanks for writing and posting this. We are soul mates. I am currently sitting in a hotel room near the Lisbon airport after two plus weeks of “bumping and snacking” around Portugal. My wife and I also seek the cultural connections you find when you travel. Travel is very different from tourism. The loss of Anthony Bourdain touched us as it touched you. He expanded our world view and has inspired us to travel more.

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