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The first fascinating season of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown ended on Sunday evening with a trip to the Congo.
Bourdain explained the trip as the culmination of a “multi-decade obsession” with Africa’s largest country, but even he was unprepared for what awaited his crew.
“No show I’ve ever made has been more difficult, more frustrating, more uncertain, maddening or dangerous,” writes Bourdain on the CNN blog.
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) June 9, 2013
Bourdain’s original inspiration was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and he was well educated on the violent tumultuous history of the country: A country ravaged and a people slaughtered in search of ivory and rubber, an omnipresent colonial power that vanished, and the rebel forces left to kill for an inch of power in its wake.
What Bourdain also seems surprised to find was a country still standing proud. Railway workers that show up to work without pay to keep the railway ready for action, library staff that organize and clean a long-forgotten collection, and a society that would buy soap over a sandwich to stay clean.
Towards the Congo River
Bourdain’s journey to the Congo River begins in Rwanda where the crew meets with their fixer, Dan. A concrete wall is what separates the relative normality of paperwork, procedure, and Wi-Fi in Rwanda from a country where good food, security, and, at times sanity, are hard to come by.
The first stop is Goma: A city where one million Congolese live at the base of a smoldering volcano. A city where locals say wildlife once attracted visitors.
“Goma was a touristy place for a long time,” they say. “Things change quickly in Congo.”
ZPZ Productions then mapped the presence of various rebel groups in the region using bright colors. A nod to the visual effects throughout the series that have highlighted important economic and geopolitical concepts by taking the viewer outside of the destination with an effective visualization. (See Episode 7 recap.)
In the crew’s next stop, Kisangani, Bourdain visits with the Wagenia fishing village where the crew eats tiger fish steamed in a banana leaf. It is one of the few moments of the episode focused on cooking techniques in Congo. Local fishermen use a system of wooden poles and acrobatic precision to catch what fish are left in the river.
The fishermen explain that tourists used to visit when the river was more plentiful and the region more peaceful, a business they hope will one day return.
Bourdain also looked at the country’s near non-existent transport infrastructure. The crew opts for a flight earlier in the episode stating that road travel in nearly impossible and later explores the quiet Kisangani train station. The story of workers arriving at the station, which “has slowly receded into the jungle,” every day “ready and waiting for the situation to improve” is heartbreaking.
“If only we could receive modern technical support, we could get moving today,” tells the railway minister to Bourdain.
On the Congo
Once on the Congo, Bourdain and crew make a quick stop to meet with a local dignitary. The local is outfitted in a full suit with native headgear and the entire town seems to have descended on the river to meet Bourdain. He is short on time and stays just long enough to gift the town a small black pig and receive a large copper bracelet.
Bourdain is authentically floored when he discovers the origins of the traditional bracelet, which has been passed through the generations only to end up with him.
The epiphanies are few and far between as the river journey continues and Bourdain becomes increasingly frustrated with the execution of his dream.
After funneling chicken blood in plastic water bottles, losing power in the midst of his chopping, and dining in the company of fist-sized moths, Bourdain gives into reality, stating, “…I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
Dull knife makes cutting chickens a bit more adventurous #Partsunknown
— Erik Osterholm (@FiveDegreesWest) June 10, 2013
The episode and Congo river cruise ends at Yangambi Research Library. Similar to the train station, the library staff arrives each day to maintain the grounds and library’s vast content. Their dedication to the colonial institution brings Bourdain to question whether some of the Congolese view Belgium colonization as “the good times,” but no answers or solutions are realized by the end of the episode.
Bourdain seems only more conflicted and pensive about that state of the places he visits, and, at least we hope, ready to keep searching, exploring, and exposing the world to viewers of Parts Unknown.
Parts Unknown returns for season two on September 25.