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Gabriella Zanzanaini and Nicolas Petit have just completed everyone’s dream trip – they ate their way through 20 countries.
Traveling by land for 306 days, from Brussels to Hong Kong, the adventurous and constantly hungry duo chronicled their delicious encounters on their popular travel blog, The Funnelogy Channel, which features enticing food porn and recipes given to them by the professional chefs/street vendors/proud grandmas they met on their journey.
It all started in Brussels in April 2014, when Zanzanaini and Petit left their nonprofit sector jobs and never looked back.
Heading toward Hong Kong, Zanzanaini’s maternal hometown, the couple passed through countries such as Greece, Iran, Turkey, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Laos, and ate unbelievable meals of exotic foods that most of us have never even heard of.
Their manifesto wasn’t about marking off a bucket list of famous dishes, but finding the surprising, little known, often humble food that travelers discover only after being invited to the table of a loving home cook.
We spoke to Zanzanaini and Petit about slow travel, their most memorable meals and how best to see Iran.
CNN: Sounds like the classic contemporary bildungsroman: quit your hateful desk job, travel world to find yourself. What kick-started it?
Zanzanaini: We didn’t hate our jobs!
We both really cared about our jobs so we gave six months’ notice to find suitable replacements for us.
A lot of people were asking why don’t you just take a sabbatical, go for a year and then come back, but we knew we wanted to have the future completely open.
If you knew you were coming back to the same life at the end of the journey then it’s just like a big holiday. You’re not going out to the open with no clue of where you’ll end up.
Petit: We didn’t want an official end date to our trip because then we would be completely free.
At the beginning of traveling, you are still thinking about what you were doing a few months ago.
But once you let go of the time frame, everything becomes completely open, with no past, no future – we can do whatever we want.
Traveling for a year, it’s all about the unexpected.
Arriving in a strange place, you don’t know what you’re going to see, you don’t know the pleasure you’re going to get and then suddenly something opens up – and there’s always something opening up.
CNN: How did the trip change you?
Petit: We can never be bored again.
It has opened a completely new creative way of looking at the world. [Zanzanaini] focused on the writing and I focused on the photography so we learned to look at the world through those media.
We are mostly interested in people, more than landscapes or monuments, so you can never be bored, you sit there looking at the people passing by … there’s so much to talk about.
It was very liberating to know that there is always something to do and it’s not related to money or job or whatever, it’s for you, you have a constant interest in the world you live in.
Zanzanaini: You could dump us in a tiny town, it’s not a picturesque village, it’s not a fancy town, but we will look at it in detail.
All these little things your mind finally has time to process.
CNN: What was the hardest thing about the trip?
Zanzanaini: At the beginning learning to trust was a really big thing.
On this trip people were inviting us to dinner, people we don’t know. In the beginning I felt so guilty.
I was uncomfortable accepting all this free stuff or kind gestures. I felt that I owed them.
Over time, people were constantly so nice, we became relaxed and trusting.
One of the saddest things a guy said to me was in Eastern Turkey. There was a student who was watching the hotel at night and we started chatting to him and he said, you have to come to my mom’s house for dinner, so at 11:30 p.m. we went to his house because his shift was over and when we were walking there he said, “Thank you so much for trusting me, most foreigners wouldn’t come with me, they would be scared.”
That’s so crazy, we should be thanking you and he was so happy to find people who were willing to accept his offer that showed me people are always so scared, we’ve built a fear inside ourselves.
Petit: Maybe we were very lucky, but nothing bad happened to us and it’s been 11 months now on the road.
We were very happy we decided to trust people.
CNN: So why the foodie theme for your trip?
Zanzanaini: I am obsessed with food, but the key was the idea of meeting people, even if we don’t speak the language, everybody eats, everybody cooks and most people are proud of their food, and it’s something that opens so many doors.
The second you show interest, especially in these regions where the politics and religion are sensitive issues, food was a safe choice.
It was a good way of getting into more serious stuff through the very innocent breaking of bread.
Petit: Every time you ask people if we can cook with them, people said yes. We never got a no.
It’s not like you come, you cook a recipe and you go.
It’s about engaging.
We recently went as tourists to the Philippines for a week.
There was a town with a fish market and as soon as we asked about cooking we suddenly knew all the people in the fish market and vegetable market and everybody comes and checks what you’re doing.
You have this snowball effect with cooking that is completely a door opener.
CNN: One place stand out as your favorite?
Petit: The thing is, you can be in a [bad] place and meet the most amazing family.
The place doesn’t matter that much.
We can both agree that we would like to go back to Iran.
It was so different than what we thought it would be.
Also eastern Turkey in the Kurdish parts.
Myanmar was so inspiring as it was the most aesthetically beautiful, photogenic place.
Tourism spoils tourism. The more tourists you have in a place, the less connection you have with the people.
If Iran was a very touristy country they wouldn’t come to you on the street and ask you to go to their home and eat with their family.
But because there is no one visiting, the people are so open and friendly.
Also Iran has such a bad reputation, so they want to show the real Iran.
All the places that are touristy in the world were never the highlight of our journey. It’s more difficult to make connections in those places.
Phuket is beautiful and amazing but it was difficult to really engage with Thai people there.
One thing we did – not for the money but for meeting people – is couch surfing in Iran. .
Many people in Iran are doing it as it is their way to meet foreigners but technically it is illegal – we had to go into this guy’s house from the car park.
Zanzanaini: One of my favorite memories was trekking in Central Asia during the end of Ramadan.
We reached the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere with a lot of nomads.
This family welcomed us into their yurts and served us a meal. I remember thinking, please don’t give me yogurt, as I had been receiving this sour and gamey yogurt throughout the region.
But this yogurt was incredible, it was so creamy and had a spoon of beige cream, almost toffee colored.
We took a chance and couldn’t believe what we received.
Petit: I really enjoyed the street food in Vietnam.
Every little corner, every five minutes, we found some new street food that we just had to try. There was so much diversity.
Western China was also a highlight for me. I really got into the noodles in China.
I didn’t know you could have such diversity in the noodles.
CNN: How can we follow in your footsteps?
Zanzanaini: Travel blogs out there focus on guides – 10 best of this city, where to go eat, where to go shop …
People love that and that’s fine. But for me the best part is finding it yourself.
We want to tell stories to inspire people to find their own adventure, we want to tell stories that make them interested to learn cultures different from their own and then realize how similar it all really is.
Petit: The best moment in traveling is the surprise.
You go into this gorge and there this gorgeous scene, this mountain, and you didn’t read that in any guidebook, it is like you won a prize.
CNN: So where do you go from here?
Petit: The trip changed completely the way we see the future.
We will continue to travel, but now it is about slow travel.
We will move to a place and stay maybe six months, a year, and really get to explore.
Hong Kong-based freelancer Zoe Li writes regularly on Chinese art, culture, food and travel.