Lesson 14: Life can be good: Be open

After almost two months in South America, in early 2017, I made my way to Mendoza. I was very excited to be in wine country. At the hostel, I met five other travellers, and we decided to join a wine tour. The tour had a simple structure: Visit five to six wineries, taste about four to six wines per winery and enjoy the experience of wine tasting. We had also signed up for a sumptuous lunch: Argentinean Asado. Asado is the barbecue equivalent in Argentina and is a rite to passage to be called a true Argentinean, or at least that is what I think. Of all the wineries we visited, I remember Bodega Lopez. They served some of the best wines I had tasted during my travels. I am not a wine connoisseur, but I do enjoy a glass or two now and then. It was not just wine. The people in the Bodega made you feel welcome. They understood that not all of us know wine, but they made an effort to answer every question we had. Sipping some Malbecs in the hot Argentinian sun, and digging into a juicy steak and chorizo, is one of my fondest memories from Argentina. It felt so special. Life was good at every moment in Mendoza.

Food has a special place in my heart. I enjoy all sorts of cuisine and in large quantities. Nothing feels better than trying out cuisines in different parts of the world. It helps bring the world closer. The path to my happiness is through my stomach.

One of my favourite memories is from Cambodia. I had met two other travellers from France, and we booked a day trip around the temples of Angkor Vat. On the way back, we noticed people selling bamboo shoots on the side of the roads. The sellers roasted these shoots on grills lit by a charcoal fire. We bought one. It was coconut rice with beans roasted within a bamboo shoot. The sticky rice was sweet and melted in the mouth with every bite. The beans added a bit of a salty finish. The charcoal had burned bits and pieces of the rice which made it crunchy, adding a lot more flavour and taste to the preparation. It was fantastic. The three of us shared the rice as we road back on our tuk-tuk to the hostel. It felt like we bonded over delicious food.

There have been many beautiful moments shared over food across my travels. In Hanoi, there are numerous family-run restaurants sprawled on almost every street corner. On one such intersection, the woman who ran the stall served stir fry beef noodles. Plastic tables with small stools completed the communal dining experience. We watched the world go by as we relished the noodles. It was a similar story in Colcha Valley, Peru. Every evening, the local women set up eateries on the road. They sold grilled meat on skewers including llama meat, corn and different types of vegetables. We enjoyed heading from stall to stall, enjoying a bit of food and the local culture. Life felt perfect in these moments.

Life was terrific in Mexico. After months of travelling in South America and parts of Central America, I made it to Mexico City. My first introduction to authentic local Mexican cuisine was Tacos al Pastor. The Pastor has its roots in the Lebanese immigrants to Mexico who brought their kebab preparation with them. Being Muslims, they never ate pork, but the Mexicans adapted the recipe to include pork, thereby creating the much loved Tacos al Pastor. It was love at first taste. Over the next few weeks, I enjoyed different Mexican cuisine preparations: Tostadas, Mole, Tlayudas and many more.

The more open I was to trying different cuisine experiences, the more alive I felt. Life just felt fantastic every single time. My heart was open to new experiences. It was a great feeling to be part of the food culture. It is the same feeling I have had in every nook and corner of the world. It doesn’t need to be a top restaurant or a fancy glass of wine. A plate of simple food does the trick. A plate of deep-fried grasshoppers, in the markets of Phnom Penh, counts too. A live worm in the jungles of Amazon also counts, though the juices that squished into my mouth on biting was revolting.

In Nepal, as we hiked around the Annapurna Circuit, many dogs greeted Elise and me. On the way to Chame, a lot of snow covered the trails. We had to walk through ankle-deep snow on unmarked trails to make our way. There was a fear of getting lost in the woods. However, we had four dogs from the village who guided us along. They would run ahead, leaving behind paw prints for us to follow. They patiently waited for us to show up, and then they went on ahead. They helped us navigate a tricky one hour before we almost reached an interim village.

I love dogs. Everywhere I have been, I had fantastic encounters with beautiful dogs. One of the most beautiful memories is from El Calafate, Argentina. It was Christmas Eve 2016. The dog in the hostel came by and dropped itself onto my feet. It laid there for a good twenty minutes. As I enjoyed beers and food with travellers from the hostel, this dog wanted my attention every few minutes. It sheepishly looked at me every time I stopped scratching and rubbing him. He knew how to play me, and he did a fantastic job. Most dogs (there were also nasty ones) I encountered were friendly and open to being petted, hugged and fed. I felt entirely at home with them. In Manang, Nepal, we stayed at a hostel which housed two stunningly beautiful German Shepards, my favourite breed. They too loved being petted and being hugged, and I took every opportunity to do so.

The year 2020 is defined by the COVID 19 crises. I was in Nepal, in late March 2020, when the news started filtering in about the devastating impact on Europe, especially in Italy, Spain and the UK. Soon India closed its borders to deal with the pandemic, and then Nepal followed. I had already finished my trek and was resting in Pokhara when the country went into lockdown. Nepal shut down for days, which turned into weeks.

Nepal is a country which was utterly devastated by the earthquake a few years back. With much enthusiasm, they had deemed 2020 as the year for Nepali tourism. Mother Nature had other plans, and the tourism industry crashed within a few weeks. Nepal had not recovered fully from the earthquake. Tourism was yet to recover entirely, and then COVID happened. If you are a tourism-based economy, this is the last scenario you want.

Nevertheless, during the lockdown in Pokhara, restaurants were giving away free food to foreigners. Why? The foreigners were stuck in Nepal, far from our homes, so the local people wanted to provide some comfort.

Taking care of guests is core to the values of the Nepali people. Nepal will suffer the effects of COVID on their economies for years to come. Yet people were giving away food to us. It was integral to their culture and their love. In these moments, you realise how good life can be.

Whether it is my experiences with food or dogs or the love shown by the Nepalis, it is clear that life can be good as long as we are ready to take a chance and embrace experiences with an open heart. I wouldn’t have had half of my memorable experiences if I had closed myself to trying different cuisines. I wouldn’t have been able to feel alive without being open to hugging countless dogs. Most importantly, the Nepalis proved that you could be open-hearted even when things are not working your way. You can represent your values and your culture under testing times. You can prove to yourself that life can be good at the best of times and at the worst of times. It just requires each one of us to be open.

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