The Great Barrier reef is Australia’s most famous iconic landscape but what the Great Barrier Reef is to the reefs of the world Fraser Island is to the sand masses, the granddaddy of them all. This massive sand island supports so many different diverse habitats. […]
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I briefly considered naming my daughter “Beirut”. She was, after all, conceived within two hours of returning from my first visit there. In 2006, along with my crew, and a number of other foreign nationals, I had been taken off the beach by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and transported by LCU to the USS Nashville, and from there to Cyprus and home.
The experience left me with a deep love and appreciation for the US Navy and Marines, the now decommissioned Nashville (once referred to affectionately, I’m told, as the “Trashville”), and, of course, Beirut.
That experience changed everything for me. One day I was making television about eating and drinking, the next, I was watching the airport I’d just landed in a few days earlier, being blown up across the water from my hotel window.
I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused—and determined to make television differently than I’d done before. I didn’t know how I was going to do it—or whether my then network was going to allow me—but the days of “happy horseshit”, the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act, that ended right there.
The world was bigger than that. The stories more confusing, more complex, less satisfying in their resolutions. As I noted in my utterly depressing last lines of Voice Over in the eventual show we put together: in the real world, good people and bad alike are often crushed under the same terrible wheel.
I didn’t feel an urge to turn into Dan Rather. Our Beirut experience did not give me delusions of being a journalist. I just saw that there were realities beyond what was on my plate—and those realities almost inevitably informed what was—or was not—for dinner. To ignore them now seemed monstrous.
And yet, I’d already fallen in love with Beirut. We all had. Everyone on my crew. As soon as we’d landed, headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as pheromonic: the place just smelled good. Like a place we were going to love.
You learn to trust these kinds of feelings after years on the road.
We soon met lovely people from every kind of background. We found fantastic food everywhere. A city with a proud, almost frenetic party and nightclub culture. A place where bikinis and hijabs appeared to coexist seamlessly—where all the evils, all the problems of the world could be easily found—right next to—and among all the best things about being human and being alive.
This was a city where nothing made any damn sense at all—in the best possible way. A country with no president for over a year—ruled by a power sharing coalition of oligarchs and Hezbollah, neighbor problems as serious as anyone could have, history so awful and tragic that one would assume the various factions would be at each others throats for the next century—yet you can go to a seaside fish restaurant and see people happily eating with their families and smoking shisha, who, in any other place would be shooting at each other.
It’s a beautiful city, with layers of scars the locals have ceased to even notice. It’s a place with tremendous heart. It’s a place I’ve described as the Rumsfeldian Dream of what, best case scenario, the neo-con masterminds who thought up Iraq, imagined for the post-Saddam Middle East: a place Americans could wander safely, order KFC, shop at the Gap. Where dollars are accepted everywhere and nearly everybody speaks English.
That is an egregious oversimplification. But it’s also my way of telling you should go there. It defies logic. It defies expectations. It is amazing.
EVERYONE should visit.
I have, in my 14 years of traveling the world in search of kicks, seen many things. But I want to tell you that my experience during the closing sequence of this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN was, short of watching the birth of my daughter, the most amazing. I hope your TV set is big enough to convey the sense of being where I was, and having something that….large…coming up at you from the depths. I suspect you’d need an IMAX. Absolutely breathtaking.
Those of us who were not born in Hawaii, who do not live there, can be forgiven, I hope, for imagining it a paradise. It has been sold as such to many a generation of white guys of a certain age: warm, “exotic”, festooned with palm trees both real and on shirts, populated (the brochures would have you believe) by friendly musicians, brimming with the spirit of aloha—and dusky skinned women who dance a lot.
As patiently, as often or as stridently as actual Hawaiians might might want to disabuse us of these notions, pointing out that unemployment on the islands is brutal, that young Hawaiians are finding it nearly impossible to find affordable housing in the communities they were born, that traffic gets worse every year, we have a hard time seeing anything but gin clear water, green mountains and the kind of place we’d like to die: drifting off in a hammock perhaps, the sound of ukuleles in the distance, the only immediate sign of death the shaker glass full of Mai Tai that falls from our liver spotted hand.
And it is those things, surely: a place where a gentleman such as myself might spend the rest of his years, padding about in a sarong, smoking extravagantly good weed, eating pig in many delicious, delicious forms. But Hawaii is actually much, much cooler than we know. MUCH cooler. It’s both the most American place left in America (in the best and worse senses of that word) and the least American place (in only the best sense). It’s Main Street America in so many ways—socially conservative, family oriented, fairly straight laced in its appetites, suspicious of outsiders, and shot through with all the usual suspects of American business you’d want and need and expect from Wasilla to Waco to St. Paul.
And it’s also, deliriously, deliciously, not American at all: its spine, its DNA, its soul, the descendants of warrior watermen—the original people who navigated their way across the Pacific and settled the islands– and Okinawans, mainland Japanese. Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese—a glorious stew similar to some of my other favorite deep gene pools, Singapore and Malaysia, where two people meeting at a party, have to inquire each others’ parents were—and where they might have come from to untangle the question of exactly who’s who. Everybody too mixed up to hate anybody in particular. This fits in nicely to my probably naive theory that we can all bone our way to world peace eventually, but thats another matter.
Point is: how can you not love a place that embraces Taco Rice? What a journey that dish has made: a fake Mexican dish created by Okinawans for homesick non-Mexican American GI’s, eventually embraced by the Japanese, the spoor then migrating back to America, to be embraced anew. Or SPAM musubi? Does mutated, cargo cult cuisine get any better? SPAM noodles? Chicken katsu with potato macaroni salad? Every great culture, eventually, throws a pig or other large animal into a hole in the ground—and the Hawaiian version is, unsurprisingly, particularly delicious, but it’s the beef patty with shiny gravy, the mash ups of Japanese and American diner, Filipino and Vietnamese that make me happiest. The food, at every level, from casual to fine dining, by fully exploiting the awesomeness of that cultural mix, gets better and better and better every year.
The place where I was happiest in Hawaii was the place everybody (native Hawaiians included) insisted that I would probably be least happy—or least welcome: Moloka’i. Those proud, tough, obstinate, mother****ers (and I mean that in the most admiring sense I could possibly use that word) are exactly the kind of people we need to save us all from the worst of “progress”. We need people like that in post-Bloomberg New York. Bubba Gump and The FieriDome would have never dared to soil my beloved city—and Donald Trump would be regularly punched in the face. In short, paradise.
I was treated with enormous kindness and generosity everywhere I went—nowhere more so than Moloka’i. My ignorance and naive preconceptions tolerated with patience and good grace. This is one haole who feels very, very honored and grateful for the many kindnesses shown me.
A special thanks to the man, the legend, Shep Gordon, talent manager extraordinaire, the man who can, it can be credibly maintained, single handedly moved chefs from their powerless huddle in the back stairs service entrance, to the big stage—and changed the world many times over. He was my host with the absolute most in Maui. If you have not seen Mike Myers’ film about Shep’s outrageously extraordinary life, SUPERMENSCH , you should do so immediately.
If you’ve been following the show for any period of time, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m a hopeless cinematography geek. That everybody who works on the show is a cinematography geek, that we’re the type of people who, in their spare time, sit around talking about directors of photography we love, films whose looks we are inspired by, and whenever possible emulate (if not outright rip off). It’s expected of the people who work with me. If you don’t know who Gregg Toland is—or Vittorio Storaro or Chris Doyle, chances are you’re not going to make it on the PARTS UNKNOWN road crew. That’s the kind of nerdy, dysfunctional, annoying people we really are.
So, all of us were super-geeked about the gentleman who agreed to take us back to Hungary, the country of his birth, and walk us through some of the locations that figured heavily in the past. His name is Vilmos Zsigmond, and he is the cinematographer responsible for some of the most strikingly beautiful, iconic images in the history of film. His work on Robert Altman’s McCABE AND MRS MILLER changed the craft forever. He also shot such films as THE DEER HUNTER, DELIVERANCE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE LONG GOODBYE, and many, many others.
In 1956, he was fresh out of film school when the Hungarian people rose up, and to everyone’s amazement, seemed to sweep their Soviet occupiers right out of their country. For a few short days, it seemed too good to be true. And it was. The Soviets returned in force, rolling tank columns into Budapest and brutally crushing any resistance. With a camera “liberated” from their film school, young Vilmos and his close friend and fellow film student, Laszlo Kovacs (later to also become a legendary cinematographer), at great peril, filmed all of it. They took to the streets and shot everything they could. The uprising, the street fighting, reprisals against the despised secret police—and the overwhelming response by the Soviets. With the film cans under their arms, determined to show the world what had happened, they snuck across the border into Austria—and began the long journey that ended up, strangely enough, in Hollywood.
So we are taking a very unique, very personal look at what is, without question, one of Europe’s most stunningly beautiful cities. I was kicking myself throughout the shoot at the fact that I hadn’t been there earlier. If you are into architecture porn, Budapest is for you. One incredible building after another. Block after block of what is simply an incredible mix of styles, the imaginations of the creators gone wild during the city’s years of empire. It is really something to see. And I felt like a total rube arriving so late. What took me so long!?
It is also, apparently, the foie gras capital of Europe, so there’s just no excuse for not having come sooner. The food is delicious. The people lovely. The scenery unlike anywhere else on earth.
I can tell you for sure that our camera guys have never been so excited—or intimidated by a subject. Vilmos may have been only the subject and guide, not the director of photography, but he was always watching. I like to think that his presence—and the magnificence of the location, inspired all of us to do our very best.
A disproportionate number of our greatest photographers and cinematographers seem to have come from Hungary. Noticing that, we reached out to Vilmos—who was kind enough to give us his time, share his life story, walk us through some of it. Having now been to Budapest and seen how incredibly, uniquely beautiful it is, I can well understand how so many visual stylists came from there. It was inevitable.