The gift of pancakes – how I make friends while travelling
September 15, 2016
A story about Couchsurfing, friendship and the important in being generous and open when exploring a new culture.
I make a lot of pancakes when I travel, they are my go to “thank you for having me” treat and you can create them in ten minutes out of as little as flour and water if need be.
When I first started travelling, eating out and trying all the local cuisines was an amazing treat. Six months on, I just wanted what I wanted, when I wanted it. A bit of culinary homesickness if you will. Of course, local markets and third world kitchens seldom have all the ingredients and equipment I needed to recreate my Kiwi favourites and so, pancakes.
You can eat with just the first two ingredients and make something truly pancake like when you have the first three. The rest are practically backpacker luxuries. Kiwi pancakes are somewhere between the fat American hot cakes and the skinny French crêpes and when I was growing up were served as a special birthday treat with lemon and sugar.
On several occasions, I have surfed people's kitchens, as in used couchsurfing.com but instead of staying over, shown up with all the ingredients cooked an ad hoc meal, (complete with pancake dessert) cleaned up and left again. To the delight of locals who shared their kitchens, local advice and many a crazy stories.
Backpacking through Asia and the Middle East I would often carry a small bag of flour in my pack for emergency pancake moments. Once I even used this flour, along with a random jar of condensed milk and a makeshift fire on the side of the road, to make a yummy damper for the local children of a rural village I found myself stuck in. A gaggle of happy, sticky children later, a makeshift room in the village’s only store was offered to me until I could catch a lift out.
Whether I was assuring my own nostalgia, bribing local children, sharing a meal with friends at a hostel, or thanking couch surfing hosts for having me, I made pancakes - some of which even turned out well.
Fast forward to Egypt where I won the Couchsurfing lottery and made some of my most enduring Couchsurfing friends. In fact, we became such good friends with a certain group of couch surfers that we just didn’t leave, we were invited to stay on well over our original couch request (I’m talking months here). As a thank you for all they had done for us, I would clean up around the flat and regularly cook meals with the limited supplies available. Guess what, I cooked a lot of pancakes and our local friends loved them, having never had anything like them before. They even invited their friends over to try them.
The fame of the pancakes grew and we joked about staying in Egypt and making a living with a pancake cart downtown. For my friend’s birthday we decided to have a pancake party. Our ragtag group of friends, Egyptians, Couchsurfers from all over the world and a few American friends from the English University in Cairo gathered for dinner, each bringing a plate of pancakes. We had tiny pancake starters, stacks of pancakes filled with savoury mushrooms as mains and skinny pancakes with cinnamon apple filling for dessert, to name only a few of the options. We ate and talked and laughed at my burnt attempt at a birthday cake - not all gas ovens are created equally. A group of young people from many different cultures, with diverse backgrounds, beliefs and interests because of our shared love of pancakes.
Months later one of the boys even contacted me and told me he had finally mastered my pancake recipe after several failed attempts, (Egyptian bachelors don’t do a lot of cooking!) I had made friends for life.
When you are travelling, or even just meeting new people anywhere, it can be tricky to open up and find common ground with people who have backgrounds vastly different than your own. After 17 countries and countless new friends, one piece of advice I could give is to be unfailingly generous, give out what you want to receive. If you want someone to talk to you and make you less nervous, go talk to someone who looks more nervous than you. If you want someone to share part of their culture, share something from yours. If you want someone to open up, tell a vulnerable story about yourself and if you want to know what the best local food is like, make them pancakes! You never know what one little gesture of sharing will get you and if for some reason it doesn’t work at least you will have pancakes.