It was March 2007, and I found myself in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser hurtling through the black of night on an un-lit 2 lane road in the desert, north of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My host, Mansour, had decided that an authentic Arabic evening at his desert campsite would be an unforgettable welcome to his country. All I really wanted to do was get some rest and be ready for the day of sales calls and appointments that awaited me in the morning.
Suddenly, and without warning, our vehicle veered off the paved road, and onto the un-lit sandy dunes of the Arabian desert. After 5 minutes of up and down in the dark, my host rolled down his window and began shouting in Arabic into the night...the result of which was a motorized hum followed by a flood of lights that revealed an oasis of 3 giant tents in the middle of nowhere.Confused I looked more closely and noticed 2 men scurrying to light camp fires, and set the evening for our arrival. "Who are those guys?" I asked, "and how did they get OUT here?"
"Oh, they live here" came the calm reply. My host had apparently hired 2 gentlemen to live in the middle of the desert, at the campsite, to turn on the lights whenever he visited (which was about twice per month). Things got more interesting as we were joined by a 3rd gentleman, whose car magically found our remote location; he emerged from the desert night carrying a large plastic mineral water bottle. But this was no ordinary water....it was a homemade speciality. "One Sip" he warned me with a waving finger "and you will feel no pain. Two sips you may forget this evening. And three sips...you will be blind for 2 days". I politely opted for zero sips.
After hours of stargazing, Mansour received a call that a sandstorm was on its way. Wonderful. But preparations had been made, so we retired into one of the giant tents, which was mercifully and amazing equipped with zipper doors, and indoor plumbing. As the sandstorm rolled in, we heard another vehicle approaching. Apparently this was "room service", ordered to the remote location to deliver our banquet for the evening, which they set up in the tent next door. When Mansour received word that the food was ready, we wrapped our faces and dashed through the howling sandstorm across to the 2nd tent. By then, it was 2am, and I was famished. Upon entering the tent, I was presented with quite an amazing sight: an authentic Arabian feast, the centerpiece of which was a full lamb, literally in-tact, skinned and cooked, and laid atop an even bigger bed of fragrant biryani rice. The gentleman next to me, who I had never seen until that moment, reached over to the blackened lamb, tore off the entire head, stuck his fingers through the top of the skull with a loud "crunch", scooped out about half of the lamb's brain and stuffed it hungrily in his mouth. He licked his juicy fingers as I watched in amazement and fear. Then the tent grew silent as he dug in for more, and, holding another morsel of lamb's brains with his bare hand, the unthinkable occurred: he offered it to me.
This was the moment of truth, all eyes were on me, and I knew that my reputation was on the line. There was no escape, so I went for it, leaning in and opening wide, he shoved the lamb's brains right into my mouth with his fingers. The tent went crazy with cheers and dancing while the wind and sand howled outside, and I knew at that very moment: I was accepted; I was one of them. The cultural divided had officially been bridged. It was 4 a.m. before I was mercifully returned to my hotel, dusty and exhausted. It was a night I will never forget. So, what is the strangest thing that YOU have ever eaten with traveling abroad?
About the author
Steve Cokkinias is the Founder & CEO of InnSense Leadership (www.innsense.com)which he established in 2012 after a successful 17-year career in the hospitality industry that included senior positions with Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and Sheraton in the U.S.A, Caribbean, and Asia. An inspiring and sought-after speaker and executive coach, Steve has delivered energizing programs on service, leadership, and talent management to a wide range of international companies. During his 9 years as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur, his hotel was named "Best Employer in Malaysia" 4 times consecutively by Hewitt & Associates, earning him a place on Human Capital Asia's "Hot 40 - Asia's H.R. Superstars". In 2010, Steve was named Malaysia's "General Manager of the Year" by the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards. His new book, "InnSanity - Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Luxury Lodging", is due for release in early 2013. Steve can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow Steve on Twitter: @stevecokkinias.