The meal sounds simple enough — a chicken club sandwich with turkey, bacon, avocado, tomatoes and grilled chicken on homemade bread. But for Austin Simmons and Andrew Vanover it was another chance to make a new friend.
Simmons (a rising senior at NC State) and Vanover (a recent NC State grad) are traveling the world this summer. They have a specific goal in mind for their travels — to make new friends in each country by asking strangers to join them for a meal. They even have a name for their journey — 50 days 50 meals.
And so, while in Capetown, South Africa, they enjoyed a chicken club at The Green Room, a small surf shop owned by a man named Ollie. “He started his own shop six years ago after being a waiter for 15 years in various locations around the globe,” Simmons wrote in an email while on board a plane destined for Turkey. “He decided he wanted to do something on his own and opened The Green Room. We hung out with him for a bit and got to hear his story! Fantastic stuff.”
Simmons, a Caldwell Fellow, says that he and Vanover wanted to take a trip where they could tap into their shared passion for photography, film and graphic design. But they also wanted the trip to have purpose or, as Simmons says, “something that had some backbone to it.” They offered further explanation for their journey on their blog.
“We both had a love for food and people, so we came up with the concept of engaging with at least one person a day on a personal level,” Simmons says. “We wanted to just love them. We thought, what better platform to reach people than through food. We wanted to engage individuals from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds using the bistro table as common ground. We wanted to hear their stories, hear a their perspective on various topics, learn from different cultures.”
Their travels will ultimately take them to 19 different countries, including Peru, India, China and New Zealand. To pay for the trip, Simmons and Vanover worked for almost six months to get sponsors for each day of their journey. Given the trip’s focus on food, it’s not surprising that many of the sponsors are restaurants in the Triangle — places like Humble Pie, Elmo’s Diner, Vin Rouge and Amante Gourmet Pizza. Other business sponsors include High Rock Partners, Southern Rail and, fittingly, The Globetrotter Luggage & Gifts.
Simmons and Vanover typically arrive in each country with no plans and no place to stay. Their goal is to meet a stranger, offer to buy them dinner and then get to know them over a meal. They take photos and videos of their new friends, and share their experiences on a blog and Web site they are maintaining for their trip. Simmons says the craziest meal they have had so far was a South African sandwich known as a “Gatsby” that is stuffed with different meats, french fries and a special sauce.
“It is important to note that the conversation is the MOST important part,” Simmons wrote. “The paying for the meal is just something we try our best to do to show the true nature of our hearts.”
The two are a couple of weeks into their journey, and Simmons says they have already met dozens of “amazing people.”
“The most exciting thing is knowing that every day is a surprise,” he says. “We have learned to expect the unexpected, let the place we are lead/guide us in whichever and whatever way it wants. And when we don’t understand someone, just smile and say hello!”
Simmons says they hope to turn their journey — and the photos and videos they have taken along the way — into a publication, a documentary and “hopefully” an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in downtown Raleigh.
“We’re not changing the world,” Simmons says, “but it is really rewarding to leave a place with new friends and stories to tell.”