Subcontinental Homesick Blues

Speaker's Corner: From a balcony in Sri Lanka, surrounded by AK-47-toting soldiers, Anthony Bourdain reveals why music can make a travel moment

12.15.08 | 12:36 AM ET

Anthony Bourdain

I‘ve found, after years of traveling, that I choose the music on my iPod, the selection of the moment, for one of two reasons: to make myself happier, or to make myself feel bad.

Right now? The Indian Ocean is crashing up against the seawall below my balcony. Somewhere, they’re toasting spices: cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and clove I think. Two young men in jungle cammos chat amiably above the narrow strip of beach that flanks the hotel, their AK-47s slung low at their sides. A few hundred yards to my left, at the top of what looks like an abandoned building, three more soldiers man a heavier, belt-fed weapon suitable for shooting down airplanes. Every once in a while, a baby-faced soldier pokes his head around the corner from next door and smiles at me.

I’m listening to Depeche Mode’s “World In My Eyes” and sipping gin and tonic from a tall glass and feeling kind of sad about things to be perfectly honest. The roadblocks, checkpoints, and omnipresent security in Colombo—an otherwise perfectly lovely, friendly city—have been bringing me down.

MORE ON TRAVEL SONGS: World Hum’s Top 40 Travel Songs | Interactive Map

I’m not really a Depeche Mode fan. I certainly didn’t listen to them in the ‘80s when they were at the height of their popularity. In fact, I believed at the time that they and their synthesizer-driven ilk had pretty much destroyed music as I knew and loved it. But more and more these days on the road, I find The Dead Boys and Richard Hell to be inappropriate to how I’m feeling and what’s going on outside my window. I’m listening to stuff I would never listen to at home like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk and the Cure. Like poking an old wound, I keep coming back to them because they remind me of sad or troubled or long-gone days, or because in their own cheesily atmospheric way, they’re about sad, even more atmospheric situations. The way I want and need to feel when far from home.

If we are all heroes of the movies constantly unspooling inside our heads, then mine is apparently the protagonist from Graham Greeneland: a world-weary fellow, resigned to his tragic (but invariably aesthetic) fate in some beautiful place on the other side of the world, far from those he loves. And most times, I choose music that enhances that over-romantic conceit.

I’ve slowly built over the years not a collection of favorite tunes, but a soundtrack to a film in which I am alternately hero, villain or victim—depending on circumstances.

The scenery becomes more dramatic, more charged with pathos with the right music pumping into your head in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that they crank up the strings and horns in a movie score—ratcheting up the melodrama as the hero, bleeding out from nobly acquired wounds, slumps over and blinks his last, looking back at lives lived, loves lost, loved ones left behind, head finally coming to rest on some lonely rock in the Pyrenees. Well, I’m doing the same thing when I knowingly inflict (for instance) Pearl Jam’s “Black” on myself (a sadder song surely never written) while looking out over jungle canopy from Angkor Wat. Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” while gorgeous, doesn’t make me feel exactly ebullient—even when gazing down on Machu Picchu. One my favorite songs, “Anemone” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre frankly makes overdosing on heroin seem like an attractive late-afternoon recreational activity—it’s that cheerful. But I can’t keep away from these songs.

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Anthony Bourdain is the host of the Travel Channel series No Reservations and the author of several books, including "Kitchen Confidential."

48 Comments for Subcontinental Homesick Blues

Tim Patterson 12.15.08 | 10:17 AM ET

I liked the last paragraph best - really well said.  Dunno about this claim though:

“The iPod is the greatest and most indispensable of travel accessories.”

I’ve never owned an iPod or traveled with music.  Maybe I should.

David DeFranza 12.15.08 | 4:27 PM ET

Like Tim, I also don’t travel with my own music. There are so many things that we bring to a moment, an iPod is certainly not necessary to make it our own.

However, in this piece, music beautifully illustrates the strange understanding achieved by travelers. Though neither Depeche Mode, Anthony Bourdain, or myself, if I were there, belong as part of the Sri Lankan landscape, our otherness hints at something greater, more universal, and more intimate. It shows that we view the world through the shades of our own histories and personalities, a point most eloquently summed up by Bukaroo Banzai when he said “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Anyway, I may start carrying music on my travels if for nothing else than protection against Coldplay.

Kim@Galavanting 12.15.08 | 9:07 PM ET

Each trip is so unique that I pick a different playlist for each one. I call it my travel soundtrack. Great post.

John M. Edwards 12.15.08 | 11:01 PM ET

Hi Anthony:

Your breakthrough tell-all book, “Kitchen Confidential,” was a great success, I think, because early on in the book you mention “Tintin.”

Tintin is a god to me. If Tintin could sing, judging by his slightly androgynous look, he would sound a little bit like Mick Jagger singing falsetto on “Miss You.” Or maybe he’s sort of like a little boy with a big man’s voice, bellowing like Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots on “Plush”: “And when the dogs do find her, got time, time, to wait for tomorrow!!!” Yipes.

Anyway, I’d rather read on vacay than capture tunes from a computer. Give me “Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharoahs” over Cold Play any day. The Ipod is the most dangerous toy of intrusion and seclusion ever invented.

John M. Edwards

Inge 12.18.08 | 6:53 PM ET

Hey Tony,

I knew I always loved your shows, but now that you mention Stevie Ray Vaughan, I am a true fan.

My husband & I watch you every chance we get. Even when the shows are reruns, we still watch. We love to see where you travel to, your “snarky” comments & no nonsense ways. You tell it like it is, giving your take on things, no matter what others may think.

Be well & stay true to yourself,

William 12.19.08 | 9:30 AM ET

I tend to like music that reminds me of where I’m from and who I am. Blues, Swing, Rock all serve to remind me of the gritty streets and strange bawdy flawed people I grew up with. Maybe I just have a weak sense of self and have to reinforce it with constant inoculations of culture. But I like to think that no matter where I go I can at least take a more eloquent vocal expression of part of my identity with me. As if somehow when I find myself unable to express what I’m about I can at least speak through the universal language of music. Or maybe I’m just full of crap.

Sophia Dembling 12.20.08 | 12:06 AM ET

But sometimes we need seclusion when we travel. Or I do, anyway. An iPod, and a book, are just alternate escapes. With an iPod, you are closed off by sound. With a book, you focus on the page instead of your surroundings. Not so different.

The iPod is an extension of one of my other favorite things: Music in the car.

My two most vivid travel music memories are listening to Gilbert & Sullivan (and singing along—I’m that kind of ubergeek) while driving past cows and farms in central Montana on a dazzling autumn morning, and wallowing in Dido on my iPod during a long, dreary van ride in Uruguay. In both cases, happy and not-so, the soundtrack made the moments unforgettable.

Deborah 12.20.08 | 10:34 PM ET

Oh, I am such a fan of the show and have been forever. My nephew and I dish about “Tony’s Adventures”.  I appreciate his sense of the world as he is “in it”.  No BS and no sugar coating. That’s what initially brought me to the show, but Tony’s story telling and soul-sharing really make him special.
Charisma is his specialty and he does it well!
Cheers to all of you and Tony, too!  We are counting the days until the new season begins!

john rockwood 12.22.08 | 11:54 AM ET

for the darkness i like charlie patton ,son house and robert johnson. delta blues chills the bone .when i am up the its stones with memphis mick and kansas keith from honky tonky wimmen thru tumnlin dice . i like to swagger with stadium mustard and a kowalka dog.

Doug 12.23.08 | 3:55 AM ET

Senor CHEF,

I am in the the middle of reading “kitchen confidentials” and I have to say… you are just as funny and real as you can be in your books as you are in your show.  I think you have THE DREAM JOB.
anyway can’t WAIT for your NEW SEASON JAN 5TH
I have to go back to kitchen confidentials
p.s. Are you planning on traveling to el salvador any time soon? show some love

slackergirl69 12.24.08 | 6:16 PM ET

I think this just might be the best thing you’ve ever written. (So far)

arleen 12.25.08 | 10:00 PM ET

I love the shows i record them and watch them over and over and over again. I watched one not to long ago and cant remember where it was. It wasnt the most pleasant one for you as you commented and it had something to do with war and fighting . Also you and your crew had to be taken out of this country finally by boat from an underground parkway lot i guess of the hotel you were confined to for awhile. If this makes sense willl you let me know what show it was from. Thank you.

Ricky 12.27.08 | 5:14 AM ET

I dont understand, Im a Drywall contractor I hang and finish sheetrock for a living. I love to cook mostly serious about barb que of any kind, Of all the shows I could watch, why in the hell do I watch this one. I record every episode and i watch them all the time. I have every channel dish network has to offer, but still I choose to watch Anthony wander around doing his thing.I can be stressed as all get out, depressed, anxious or any other kind of distress one might not enjoy.  Watch this old geezer who seems to be in touch with my inner most being and know who I really am, for an hour or so and then I feel refreshed, revigorated, if thats a word and everybody is now my friend. Im just taken back a bit to realize my hero is not an action figure, a great politician thats goin to fix everything or a porn star, but a cook from New york, go figure.

AnnMarie 12.28.08 | 2:06 AM ET

Hey Anthony…just got back from a trip—iPod & Kitchen Confidential in hand…I don’t travel nearly as often as you do, but I do agree with what you wrote…music is therapy—it’s necessary…

Thanks for making me laugh—less than 100 pgs. to go…then it’s a Cooks Tour!!


Lisa Kay 12.28.08 | 3:07 AM ET

Hi Anthony,

I enjoy your show very much and hope you decide to come back to Seattle again sometime.  If you like Stevie Ray Vaughan, might I suggest the cd titled “Just Comparing Notes?”  (I hope you find the humor in this comment.)  The cd has a lot of Blues in it; both slow and upbeat.  Have a wonderful new year!


Lisa Kay

Tresa Grocki 12.28.08 | 4:15 PM ET

COSTA RICA…I am watching how this contest last year went down, and I have to say the Saudi girl was intelligent and well versed. I loved the show..HOWEVER…my video was poor, as I am not as financially well off as most peoiple. BUT…I lived and raised my three children in Costa rica and can tell you more about Costa Rica than mmost Americans can tell you about the USA( like me). I am highly offended I didn’t make it at least into the final 4
I want TONY BOURDAIN to reconsider Costa Rica with me as his guide. I also have photos posted on travel channel of my last visit there…and on my Facebook: Teresa Grocki…I have more…I took my photos in Dec. 2006…way before the whisperings of this type of contest…and fit perfectly into Tony’s schematic…and besides, I PROMISED HIM on my video NO KARAOKE!!! AND pig killings…I even posted the head of the victim we murdered on Dec 8th 2006.
PLEASE SOMEONE get in touch with Tony & tell him that even my Costa Rican ex husband would be more than happy to tell you that if there were EVER any American qualified to talk about Costa Rica and daily life there…it would be ME

Amanda 12.28.08 | 8:15 PM ET

I love your show, it ROCKS Anthony!!!!

Teresa Grocki 12.29.08 | 12:12 AM ET

yes it does

labellegoulue 12.29.08 | 2:00 AM ET

Ah, the soundtrack of life.  How true it is.

Mmm… right now some Sheryl Crow, Good is Good and some Eagles, Hotel California…

The idea of amplifying sadness or joy through music… or in my case, some sort of soft, sad melancholic angst? ...well, it makes sense, especially since the mood of movies are so quickly foreshadowed just seconds before you see the next scene, by the notes of moody tune.  You feel it before you experience it - just goes to show how much our emotions are affected by music.


andrea gorski 12.29.08 | 7:59 PM ET

Hello! Anthony!!

Well about the iPod!! is the best thing to do.. i have travel a lot! and let me tell you every country has a song!! on my ipod!! and well one more time!! remember to go to Venezuela PLEASE!!! is a nice country too!! take care!!  and please!! keep traveling!!! you are the best!!

labellegoulue 12.29.08 | 8:28 PM ET

!!! !! !!! !!!! !! !!! !! and let’s not forget !!

Violet 01.01.09 | 8:19 PM ET

I think Tony Rules, and Tony`s Travels are the best thing to on TV.

Tresa Grocki 01.01.09 | 10:43 PM ET

Absolutely! I love his trips…they are funny, intriguing, and entertaining, instrucitve and satisfy curious minds. I love the “virtual” trips we take…and I think the saddest was Libya.

Chad Warnke 01.01.09 | 11:33 PM ET

Trips and music or music and trips. Again you envoke memorys of patchooli and bare feet. Love your show but more important the way you bring things into view. Food, people , culture (real culture not the made up crap ), and music. Thanks…. Chad

Joanne 01.02.09 | 2:34 AM ET

Pre-ipod, I remember my train ride (overnight) from Paris, France to Florence, Italy.  I just listened to Keali’i Reichel’s Kawaipunahele…being in a different country I felt I needed something familiar….something to remind me of home.  Now as I travel to different places, I listen to this song, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow…and other hawaiian songs in my i-pod.  Though recently, I found myself listening to Cure’s Friday I’m in Love (and other upbeat 80’s songs)—- I guess I needed to listen to more carefree songs as my plane experienced turbulences.

Mr. Anthony your shows…keep them coming.  Love your honest perspective on things…

Kelly 01.02.09 | 2:34 PM ET

This article made my year. Sometimes I think Anthony lives in my head.

Note to all: add Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” to your travel repetoire. Good stuff.


Teresa Grocki 01.02.09 | 2:43 PM ET

Anthony should be considered a National Treasure! He is enlightening Americans about other cultures…because we seem to be the ONLY unsophisticated society in the Universe smug enough to think all people should be speaking OUR language and our language only here! Even in Namibia, he’s trying to learn the “sonar” language of the little girls’ name…so exciting!
Everywhere you go, people wonder why the heck none of us speaks at least another language…because we all think we’re snobs…not me! And not Anthony…I SO enjoy hearing him try to speak to foreigners I can watch his repeats over and over and STILL I laugh in the same places, the innuendos, the richness of his voice is ALL the music I’d need to travel!

Cohasset Mike 01.02.09 | 3:08 PM ET

While haiving all my favorite soul music with me on my travels is very nice the IPOD has no match when it comes to learning and perfecting a new language while traveling. It also serves to store all my meditation CDs. I agree, the IPOD is a travel essential.

Fo 01.02.09 | 5:26 PM ET

I love the way you smile…

Adena Harford 01.02.09 | 6:17 PM ET

...let’s have another round for the bright red devil that keeps me in this tourist town…

Teresa Grocki 01.02.09 | 10:28 PM ET

who smiles? Oh Anthony yes….anythig he does glows

BALDY 01.03.09 | 2:56 PM ET

Hey Tony, for awhile I was living all over the country, in 6 months it was Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Tampa, Seattle, Las Vegas, Connecticut…........... All I ever made sure I had with me was my mp3 player/cd player, stack of 100 mp3 cds, id, clean drawers, and a toothbrush. Now looking back I can relate most of my music to a certain street, airport, restaurant ,or even the smell of a certain food. Music and travel are defnitely a hand in hand thing. The show is defnitely inspiring for me now it’s time to get a passport, keep makin the show and I’ll keep watchin wherever I am. Salud

Meg 01.03.09 | 5:27 PM ET

Having an iPod when you travel makes everything a little better, for sure. Whether on the plane to drown out the other passengers and engine sounds (a huge plus for those of us who HATE being on the plane), while gazing out at a beautiful sunset from a Jamaican balcony (my personal fav), or on a longgg bus/train/boat ride to that day’s destination, music can enhance whatever you are doing. I never drown out interesting people or experiences, but my sanity has likely been saved more than once by being able to kick back and enjoy familiar sounds when far from home. I never ltravel without my trusty iPod with me!

lynn 01.04.09 | 4:23 PM ET

Hi Tony,
Looking forward to your new travels!
Just a suggestion, how about a trip to St.Petersburg? Of course with Zamir!

Wishing you and your family a healthy “New Year”

Timothy Lynch 01.04.09 | 10:01 PM ET

Hey what’s up Anthony, first I want to thank you for this show, it literally makes my daily 1p.m. slot alot happier, and I never miss a monday. There are very few things in this world that can transport the human spirit more than music. I couldn’t help but notice you mention Pearl Jam, though my musical taste is basically a genre orgie, no band’s music can take you to so many places-high, low or other and I am obsessed. I am from the Cape Cod/Boston area which is like there second home, if you are a big fan you should come do a show in Massachusetts when they tour next and catch a real Pearl Jam show, one of the last “real” concert experiences left in this country since probably the 70’s (not that i was around then) I’ll take you around Mass., hell you wear enough Ptown shirts you gotta do a show here, there is alot to offer.

Enduring Wanderlust 01.05.09 | 1:55 AM ET

There is no doubt that music can accentuate a moment. I remember being on Santorini years ago and a waiter turned off the light in the small restaurant. It was just our group of 8. The star were bright as we looked up and he played Armstrong’s It’s a Beautiful World. It fit. Granted a Greek song would have been great, but he did okay with the tip

Boone Smith 01.05.09 | 11:21 PM ET

You’re right,Tony.Music can soar you to the greatest peaksof your life,or sink you to the darkest depths of the soul.I too have found myself listening to songs I would burn a year ago.In the right situation/mind-set they have thier message,thier life,that pull you in.While it’s true,French Pop has been lacking since the 1930’s,and the italians choose to dismember the greatest “Pop-star” of their history,it’s not exactly fair ranking it lower than Sammy Hagar.
Love the show!Can’t wait to see what’s next.

chad warnke 01.06.09 | 2:32 AM ET

    Great show tonight, nice to see REAL mexican food. Most important you show the pride and determination that many of us work with. The migrate Mexican that works his ass off and always has a smile as he chews on that chicken foot. By the way do you ever repond to the jibberish here?

Keep keepin on,

Merritt 01.06.09 | 3:14 PM ET

I love the show. 
Travel is my favorite hobby.  Most of us cannot travel as often as we would like, so your travels inspire and fill the void until our next travel.
Thank you for all you do so that we can enjoy places that we may never get to see.
Also, your honesty about what you drink, eat, or smoke is refreshing.  Too many shows out there are missing the reality of travelers and the full experience of travel.
Thanks again.

Cohasset Mike 01.06.09 | 3:19 PM ET

What is the story with the new Mexico City show where you go to non-smoking eating and drinking establishments and don’t say single a word about this sad development south of the border?

Aza 01.06.09 | 5:29 PM ET

Hi Anthony,

      My husband and I live in the country of Dominica where we religiously watch your show. You have a wonderful way of describing the food, culture, and life of the country that you’re visiting.
I always tell my husband how wonderful it would be if you visited Armenia where we originally are from. Armenia has one of the richest histories in the world. Dating back several centuries before starting from 8 century B.C., the Armenian people are defined by their language and religion. Their culture has been influenced by many countries over hundreds of years. The Armenian homeland has been occupied by Persians, Mongols, Russians, Romans, Greeks, etc. An Armenian family can live in a house influenced by a Roman architectures, eat a Persian dish, speak Russian, and consider themselves Armenians. One e-mail is not enough to fully describe the wonderful country of Armenia, I just want you to bring to your attention the interesting and unique Armenians. We would like for people to discover the Armenian people through your genuine perspective.


Aza Danielyan

PS: You‘ve never tasted pork until you have gone to Armenia. =)

Sammy 01.07.09 | 9:26 AM ET

Hey Tony, so happy you are back! Enjoyed your show so much! I can relate to the music you listen to, even the songs that make you sad. I enjoy those even more when the time is right. I have a question for you next time you address your fans. What is your favorite food commercial on TV?
I know you must get very lonesome and miss home when you are far away, but keep doing what your doing as long as your body will let you, then you can go on to something different. You will then have all these memories to keep you company.

Bryan Davis 01.25.09 | 8:15 PM ET

In regard to those folks that presume that an iPod is a rigidly anti-social device, I fondly recollect many times where I have used my iPod to quickly and pleasurably bridge cultural gaps with indigenous people I have encountered while traveling abroad.  One of my most indelible memories occurred at a scenic lookout point at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  I was having trouble communicating with a young monk, and I noticed him looking at my iPod, so I handed it to him and put on “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G.  As the sun was setting across the beautiful temple ruins, the monk and I—each with an ear plug in—bobbed our heads up and down in unison with giant smiles on our faces.  He may not have given me a high-five afterward if could have understood the lyrics, but it was still classic.

Sharon 01.26.09 | 6:39 PM ET

I love my iPod and it has acted as a continuous thread to America for me when I have been traveling alone - and it has added a greater quality to the moment of my immediate surroundings. For example, I will never forget the intense feelings I had standing in the middle of my apartment in Tokyo on the 4th of July then jumping madly about to American Woman being sung by Lenny Kravitz - I had this incredibly patriotic and happy feeling. I definitely would have felt sad and lonely without that song and that moment.

And I had many surreal moments riding in Tokyo subways cars with staring blank faces while I listened to Bruce Springsteen and wished a friend could be sharing this surreal moment with me in empathy.

Carol 01.27.09 | 6:24 PM ET

I hate you Anthony. I hate that everytime I see your show, read a blog, hear you whine, that you GET to do what you do.  I am not a writer, just a reader.  I am not a frequent traveler just an occasional one.  I’m a wife and mother of two teenage boys who just really just want to sit at the beach once a year and troll for adventure in the sand and surf.  Our business and sports schedule do not afford us the luxury of buzzing about the world meeting new friends in exotic places, eating in the cultures and heavenly foods you do.  So I pathetically settle for the Travel Channel and live vicariously through you and your compatriots Samantha and Andrew.  I am stuck in Holmes County Ohio (where the very exciting Amish live) where we have had a record breaking snow fall and tudra like temperatures this year.  I actually cried yesterday watching Samantha (self pity-could it be seasonal depression due to lack of sunshine?)  Today I’m watching you and Andrew and I just threw my house slippers at the tv.(anger management problems)  What a girl to do? I know, I know, I KNOW being far from home after awhile can get very mundane and I can get snarky and homesick for the good old USA, but I’m sorry today you’re the one that gonna get hit with that crap.  I ‘d almost eat that stuff Andrew is eating in Chili today if I could just the heck out of town…and you are sitting on your balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean, writing…I HATE YOU!!!!  .....keep it coming

Craig L Hodges 01.28.09 | 8:07 PM ET

Music is the simplest of travel enhancing drugs, and you describe this well Anthony…

“The scenery becomes more dramatic, more charged with pathos with the right music pumping into your head in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that they crank up the strings and horns in a movie score…”

film izle 02.01.09 | 2:38 AM ET

I agree travelling and listenin music is awesome. I like Tony veru much.

Patric H 02.01.09 | 7:20 PM ET

I have never owned or been much of an iPod fan, I tend to steer clear of the gadgets and gizmos like that only because I find that they take up so much of ones time.  I am not sure if I am unfortunate or just lucky, but I have never had the opportunity to travel to a place with checkpoints and machine guns, sometimes I feel that it is pretty unfortunate, as there is so much of this world that I would like to see.

I have only ever left the United States to visit Mexico, and even then it was a short trip.  I have lived all across the U.S., that in itself can be quite the adventure and I am pretty sure that some cities should have armored checkpoints, I figure it wouldn’t be any less welcoming than getting robbed your first day in town, though it may be a bit safer.

May I one day travel to a place that has more crime than major metropolitan city here in the states! :)

Patric H

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