Anthony Bourdain has the best travel show on television not just because he's an asshole, but because he's such a damn astute one. He doesn't buy the Chamber of Commerce's bullshit, but he also doesn't lean on cynicism for its own sake. Like any good journalist, in other words, he gets at the truth by asking some uncomfortable questions.
So what happens when Bourdain premieres a new season of No Reservations in a place decidedly uneasy with tough interviews? If you missed his Cuba episode last night, Tony broke the embargo and emerged, mostly, with his dignity intact.
One of the joys of Bourdain's show -- especially when he visits less than totally free societies -- is watching his push and pull with the local minders who are paid to feed him the government's hokum.
If he doesn't exactly put his Cuban guides on blast, he also consistently prods them about the inequalities he sees in Cuban life -- baseball stadiums without working lights, gross differences between food at foreign-aimed restaurants and local homes.
Sure, some on Calle Ocho will probably burn Tony's photo this morning for daring to set foot in the land of Castro and taking such joy in the classic cars, love of baseball and simple cooking he finds in local neighborhoods.
And yeah, Bourdain does buy the usual "But the hospitals and schools are great!" argument a little too easily toward the end of the episode.
But even Babalu Blog had trouble roasting the host for his show this morning. "I felt relief for the fact that Bourdain did not ignore the reality of life in Cuba, and the injustice of living in a totalitarian society," writes Alberto de la Cruz. "My disappointment came when he never pushed it further than a question or comment."
In an interview this morning with AOL about filming the episode, Bourdain says he could feel change in the air in Havana -- and hopes that liberalization doesn't mean Havana becomes Miami. Here's one part of the interview:
It's hard to know the true meaning of what I saw and experienced in Cuba as people are still guarded about what they say. The country is clearly headed for some major changes in the very near future. Everybody seems to be holding their breath with anticipation, not knowing what comes next and how events will unfold.
Personally, I'll be fascinated to see if with the inevitable changes - positive ones, like freedom of the press, freedom of speech, connection to the rest of the world, freedom to leave, to move around internally more easily - the country loses some if the uniquely good things like the unspoiled (if run down and crumbling) beauty of Havana. Or, the joy of pure baseball and the cars. I'd hate to see Havana look like Miami in a few years.
Either way, with travel to Cuba getting easier and easier for Americans, the exilio community should probably be grateful for the Bourdains of the world who at least try to get at the nuances of life under Castro. Let's just hope Man vs Food waits a few more years before bringing its frat-guy sensibilities to the island ...
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If you missed the episode, a few clips are online. Here's Bourdain checking out a heated baseball argument in the park: