Sometime in 2009, Sucheta Rawal happened upon a website about a volunteer excursion to Russia.
She was 29 years old and by then had traveled to about 30 countries, slept in cookie-cutter hotels, sampled restaurants recommended in guidebooks, snapped up the same old souvenirs.
Russia, though, was different, she said.
There she volunteered in orphanages, ate home-cooked meals three times a day and learned about the culture, history and language.
“I thought this is how you travel,” Rawal said the other morning as she sipped a cup of tea at her home in Smyrna.
It wasn’t long after that the former Gallup consultant said that she finally took the advice of friends and family and launched Go Eat Give, a food and travel blog dedicated to promoting cultural awareness through cuisine, community service, music and dance.
Since its launch in February 2011, Go Eat Give, which gets about 5,000 page views a month from 70 different countries, has evolved into an international nonprofit hosting monthly dining events, cooking classes and volunteer vacation trips, and it recently garnered Rawal international acclaim.
In November, Rawal, 32, was named “one of the most influential bloggers on culture in the world” by the Fondazione Florens. She was chosen based on, among other things, the number of blog posts, their originality and reader reaction.
“I was thrilled,” she said.
And so naturally, she wanted to share what she’d learned about Italy’s people, places and palates while attending Florens 2012, a biannual cultural and environmental heritage week there.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Rawal will host Destination Italy at Double Zero Napoletana, a restaurant in Sandy Springs.
Metro Atlanta residents credit Go Eat Give with inspiring them to not only change the way they travel but changing how they view other people and cultures.
Mousumi Chinara of Atlanta credits the blog with inspiring her to volunteer in an orphanage recently in Lima, Peru.
“I’d traveled around Europe, but it was always as a tourist, visiting museums, the typical experience,” Chinara said. “Giving some of your time to helping people enriches the experience.”
First a blog, then a cause
For years, Rawal had crisscrossed the globe. When she wasn’t traveling, she daydreamed about her next jaunt. Friends and colleagues sought her out when they wanted to know the best hotels to stay, the most appetizing restaurants to eat and places to go.
“I became the go-to person for travel advice,” Rawal said.
They encouraged her to blog about her travels.
Rawal had long written freelance pieces for various magazines, blogs and the school newspaper at Georgia State University while she was a student there.
Writing, she said, was a hobby, but it had never occurred to her to start her own blog.
Then in 2010, she traveled to Morocco and felt the time was right.
Rawal began posting daily blogs about teaching English at a women’s empowerment center in Rabat, the people she met there, the local culture and traveling around Morocco.
“Then I wanted to start a bigger blog about my other travels, so a friend of mine helped me come up with Go Eat Give,” Rawal said.
In February 2011, she began blogging in earnest, journaling all her travels and sharing inspirational stories, cultural insights and recipes collected from locals abroad.
In just a matter of months, Go Eat Give grew into a global movement with Rawal encouraging other people to combine their travels with giving to the communities they visited and actively engaging the culture.
“Then I started speaking at events, conferences and workshops about how to travel, learn about cultures and it just evolved,” she said.
“I got emails from people who said they’d been motivated to do community service,” she said.
Bringing home the experience
The feedback inspired Rawal to think beyond the blog and to launch a nonprofit organization of the same name that promotes cultural awareness.
To do that, she highlights a different country each month and for a fee provides local participants with an authentic cultural experience that includes multiple-course meals, speakers and entertainment.
For instance, Go Eat Give guests were recently introduced to the Afghan and Lebanese cultures at Ariana, an Afghan restaurant in Sandy Springs, and at Nicola’s, where the owner demonstrated a Lebanese dance.
Mitzi Galgerud, who regularly reads Rawal’s blog for updates on new places, trips and recipes, has been a frequent participant at these events, including the gatherings at Nicola’s and Ariana.
“It was great to enjoy the warmth of the Afghan people versus all the negative things we see in the news,” Galgerud said.
Before then, Galgerud, 49, of Atlanta said she’d had very little exposure to the Afghan culture.
And while she has yet to participate in the cooking classes or “voluntourism” trips, Galgerud said, she finds the cultural dinners “extremely enriching.”
“There is always delicious food and wonderful hospitality of the restaurant staff,” she said. “These evenings not only broaden my world view as an individual, but also allow me to share the experience of a new culture with many other like-minded individuals and create new connections.”
Since her daydreams a few years ago, Rawal has quit her job as a Gallup consultant. She travels, writes and runs the Go Eat Give nonprofit full time.
She said, “I work about 80 hours a week, but I’m much happier.”