New Jersey: Magic, not tragic

"Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" travels to New Jersey, Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook.

(CNN)I woke up this morning in Borneo and went for breakfast in a crowded kopi tiam (coffee shop), where I greedily devoured a lip-burning, nose-running, utterly delicious bowl of Kuching-style laksa. Tomorrow, I'll board a long boat and, for the second time in my life, head up the Skrang River -- this time for Gowai, the Iban harvest festival where I will (I am warned) be drinking way too much rice whiskey.

I have asked that my former headhunter hosts give me a hand-tap tattoo, possibly of a durian pattern. I have been having regular foot massages -- something they do particularly well in this part of the world. My room smells of jasmine and outside the window, across the river, the former palace of the "White Rajah" of Borneo is visible in the late afternoon light. The muezzin's calls to prayer will soon echo from the mosques throughout the city, one voice joining another, then another -- a chorus from every direction.
And yet, and yet ... in the midst of all this ... exotica, my mind runs to New Jersey.
New Jersey, too, was exotic to me once. For much of my childhood.
    The then-working class riviera of Barnegat Light where I spent many happy summers. The dark mysteries of off-season, pre-casino Atlantic City with its vast, empty hotels, novelty shops, boardwalk, saltwater taffy and amusement pier. Leafy bedroom communities where I grew up, others where I was later whisked off to school. The hard-packed nighttime slopes of Great Gorge and Vernon Valley. The fabled Pine Barrens, where untold horrors waited amidst the discarded gangsters and mythical, griffon-like creatures said to feast on little boys. The fastidious, house-proud Victorian severity of Ocean Grove right next to the decidedly honky-tonk Asbury Park. The Palisades. The Meadowlands, a vast wonderland for juvenile delinquents. Even the refineries of Elizabeth had secrets -- their omnipresent but ever-changing odors unknowable.
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    I came of age a passenger in cars driving aimlessly around Route 80, Route 46, Route 4, cruising for burgers, cruising for girls, cruising just ... because.
    So, to me, much maligned New Jersey was always magic. Until, like so many of us raised in the Garden State, I left -- forever -- for better, more "sophisticated" territory. In my case, right across the river to New York City.
    Everybody, of course, is from New Jersey.
    Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, William Carlos Williams, Alan Ginsberg, Queen Latifah, Stephen Crane, Glenn Danzig, Peter Dinklage, Donald Fagen, Ray Liotta, Martha Stewart, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Colicchio and, oh yeah, Bruce Springsteen. Anyone else not listed here was probably born there but just won't admit it.
    I get angry now when people speak badly of my home state. (I may not have been born there, but I was certainly raised there from infancy until age 17.)
    And, I get angry from afar when people abuse it and try to paint it in a bad light. Certainly the reality series depicting roid-raging, Valtrex-popping mesomorphs did the state no favors, but New Jersey hardly has the exclusive on meatheads.
    I've watched in dismay for much of my life as politicians from both Democratic and Republican parties have used New Jersey as their personal feeding trough. And if you think the Chris Christie traffic scandal was no big deal, think about how you'd feel if it was YOUR 6-year-old daughter on the first day of school, trapped in a school bus for four hours, desperate to not piss herself in front of her classmates. All of this because a bunch of vindictive, spiteful, gloating political hacks, who were peeved about matters completely outside your control or understanding, decided to use YOUR kid as a club with which to beat their perceived enemy.
    Or, imagine YOUR Dad waiting for an ambulance or emergency responder.
    And certainly what's become of Camden -- once a principle engine of the industrial revolution, after generations of mismanagement from the other political party -- is even more egregious.
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    And has anyone, ever, taken as large, as ugly, as steaming a sh*t on a city as Donald Trump's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City? LOOK at it! (We do, in this episode). Can you imagine an uglier, tackier structure -- one more oblivious to its surroundings? It seems designed specifically to obscure the beach, the boardwalk, the gorgeous architecture of Atlantic City -- the very things that (still) make AC wonderful.
    Of course, Donald seems eager to separate himself from his leavings these days, not because its an architectural abomination, but because its apparently become a financial embarrassment.
    It would be easy to make New Jersey look amazing if I concentrated on its farmland, its beaches, its parks and its finer restaurants. Easier still if we chose to film in summer.
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    But I thought, let's shoot this show in WINTER, when New Jersey is supposedly at its grayest, most inhospitable, ugliest. And lets go right to those parts of New Jersey that are supposedly the most f***ed up, the places where everything went horribly wrong.
    It is MY contention that New Jersey is so magnificent, so unique, its spirit and sense of humor so unsinkable that even there, seeing those places -- as I do -- with affection and respect and no small measure of hope, that those who watch this episode will find my beloved home state awesome and beautiful too.
    Even in the refineries, the sprawl of bridges and highways and clover leafs, there's beauty there. We worked mightily to show you those things as we saw them; as I feel about them.
    New Jersey, it is my contention, was amazing all along. It was when we tried to "fix it" that we went astray.
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    Drive Ventnor Avenue from Atlantic City to Margate, look out the window and you'll see, still there in parts, what was lost and what could be again. Look at Asbury Park -- how its coming back -- against all odds. And watch one lone woman's struggle in Camden to take back, one block -- one child -- at a time, in a city she grew up in, loves fiercely and won't let go of.
    The hero sandwich of my youth. Steamer clams. Jersey Italian. Birch beer. The smell of dune grass. Vanilla salt water taffy. Fried clam strips. These things should be eternal. They are eternal.
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