'There is so much power in spontaneity'
Dubai-based Ameya Ghanekar on his philosophy of trusting the unknown that was born when he couch-surfed in six countries in 83 days - and why that matters in a covid-19 world
"We have two options in life: be happy and be happy."
It was the first of many witty zingers that Dubai resident Dr Ameya Ghanekar would bat my way over the course of an hour-long conversation, during which I often wondered whether he was interviewing me or vice versa.
One would be hard-pressed to put the 37-year-old Indian expat in a box. He's an entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, leadership facilitator, learning strategist, globe trotter, former professor in human behaviour - and, as of April this year, a published author. The book, titled 23 ½ Beds, is the reason we're talking.
Ten years ago, Ameya received a phone call that changed his life. A student rang up, crying; he'd been diagnosed with tuberculosis and had three months left to live. The exchange left Ameya shaken and, in a burst of inspiration, motivated him to quit his job and go on a journey: six countries, 83 days - no plans. "I believe everything happens twice," says the former academic. "Once in your mind, and once in reality. If it doesn't happen in your mind, it's never going to happen in reality."
The ensuing journey saw Ameya go couch-surfing in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Along the way, he met "23 angels" from all walks of life - from a blind violinist to an ex-Buddhist monk and a vegetable seller who lived with 15 other family members in a single room - and his experiences left him with a single philosophy in life: trust the unknown.
"There is so much power in spontaneity," says Ameya, who's quick to add that he doesn't want to take away from the power of planning. "I taught MBA students, after all. But the heart's calling is the heart's calling. The worst that can happen is Life - and I'm glad it happened to me."
Initially, Ameya admits, he was scared because he didn't know where he was heading. "But once I started meeting all these unknown people who were teaching me things I'd failed to learn the previous 27 years of my life, my fear turned into 'addiction'. I couldn't wait to meet the next person."
Gratitude, kindness, tolerance and perspective are just some of the lessons he picked up along the way. Like the time he went to Angkor Wat in Cambodia with the 'typical tourist intention' of clicking a picturesque photo of the monument at sunrise. "There were more people at the temple at 4am, waiting to click the sun rays, than there were thoughts in my mind," he quips. But before he could get the snap he wanted, Ameya noticed a heavily pregnant beggar nearby. "She had three malnourished kids begging with her," he recalls. "I decided to talk to her and, over the course of the conversation, asked her where her husband was. She said she didn't know."
Ameya eventually found out, to his horror, that the woman didn't know who the fathers of any of her children were; she was blind and a victim of sexual abuse because of it. "I couldn't click the photo I wanted to, I couldn't breathe," he says. "My mother tried to teach me gratitude for years, but this unknown lady was the one who finally did."
The rest of the journey was filled with equal enlightenment for Ameya, who ended up lodging with folks whose worldviews were polar opposites to his own - and experienced kindness from total strangers. "I stayed with a family in Vietnam who took my vegetarian status so seriously that they didn't cook non-vegetarian meals, even for themselves, throughout the six days I stayed with them. I had a total stranger come to the airport with hot and cold towels so I could refresh myself after my trip. There was even someone who stayed in a three-storey house next to the beach who had to go away on an emergency before I got to his place, but who left me - a total stranger - the house keys and let me stay there for seven days instead of two."
There are nice people in the world, declares Ameya. "And once you experience such an abundance of niceness, you feel no other option but to be nice to others yourself." Today, Ameya runs a boutique learning and development firm called Orange Zebra - and he has just one desire: to tell the world the unknown can be beautiful, because of who it can turn you into.
As the world grapples with all the unknowns Covid-19 has been throwing its way, Ameya is finding the lessons he learnt 10 years ago are more relevant now than ever before - and that we still have "hundreds of reasons" to be happy. "Just count your blessings and see."