There are many ways to see the world.
The most intimidating are the most rewarding. After all, picture-postcard sightseeing is so unsatisfying. Perfect beaches, craggy mountains and starlit nights are delicious. And generic. What travellers want now is to really get under the skin of a city. To understand its pulse, no matter how rapid, erratic or elusive.
Understanding a country’s food is possibly the most delightful way to unravel the unfamiliar. After all, for every country, city and family, its own recipes, herbs and spices are a primeval, intense, palpable way of keeping the past alive, and defining who they are.
Of course, where there’s money to be made there are a kaleidoscope of delightful options offered by everyone from cosmopolitan tour operators to housewives, all willing to throw open slick kitchens and butter-stained recipe books.
Today, you can picturesquely pick lemons on the Amalfi Coast to make a sorbet under the guidance of an appropriately-glamorous chef to the stars. You can cook couscous in traditional Moroccan houses, riads, (complete with Philippe Starck-designed bathrooms) in Marrakech. And of course, you can learn how to fry a mean Karimeen on a languid Kerala houseboat. But this isn’t the kind of gritty, intense, challenging travel that will simultaneously terrify and thrill you. The kind that voyagers ache for — travel that inevitably results in epiphanies.
“Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything” by Elizabeth Gilbert, the tediously-touted bestseller is fascinating simply because its author has managed to accomplish what so many people dream of, but don’t have the courage to actually do. She walked away from a safe, comfortable, conventional life and travelled at whim, guided by instinct and impulse. Exulting in gorgeous pizzas topped with fresh mozzarella and radiant basil in Naples. Finding peace in the obligatory India route and austere vegetarianism. Falling recklessly in love among the rice fields in Bali.
Gilbert’s not the only one. Around the world, there are people bravely chucking up well-paid jobs and well-settled lives to travel and learn the rough, tough, infinitely more fulfilling way. They’re eating in local homes. They’re waiting tables in different cities every month. They’re cooking in kitchens starkly different from everything they’re used to. And loving every minute.
Take 28-year-old Marc Vaccaro, for instance, who after six years of culinary school and cooking for a restaurant, liquidated all his assets, and bought a one-way ticket to Mumbai last September. Since then, he’s travelled through India, Nepal, China, and Malaysia.
His goal is “to cook, learn, work, and eat my way through as many countries as possible… Working in restaurants, cooking, eating at markets, and getting involved with local communities is something I have been dreaming about for a while,” he states in his couchsurfing profile. (Couchsurfing’s a travellers’ website.) And he’s not worried about having to peel mountains of potatoes in the process. “I am no stranger to hard work… I’m willing to peel potatoes, chop onions; hell, I’ll even scrub dishes if it will get me into a learning environment.”
Clearly, this optimistic, hearty, open-minded way of travel works. Marc’s currently in Phuket, Thailand, “working along side a very gracious chef, who has let me into his house, kitchen, and restaurant, an experience that has changed my life.” He plans to travel through Australia, New Zealand, and North Africa, down to South America and then work his way back home.
Marc’s just one example. The world is rife with nomad cooks and travelling gourmets, all willing to roll up their sleeves and really learn how to cook from the original sources of the world’s favourite recipes. And while they’re at it, to learn much more than the ubiquitous pastas, pizzas and curries.
It is, of course, an added advantage if you can actually cook well. Like 22-year-old Josh, who exults in the fact that his skills are as useful in Reykjavík as they are in Reno. “Everybody has to eat,” he says, “So I have the ultimate job security. And I can cook anywhere in the world.”