March 12th 2010, on an isolated track next to the Serbian Danube. I’m a lone cyclist pushing a laden bike through the snow. Trudging a few steps, stopping, then trudging some more. Every few minutes the front wheel washes out and I fall into the snow. The wind is strong and the snow is falling heavily. Man and bike’s progress gets slower. I begin to regret choosing the track less travelled. I start to feel sorry for myself. My shoes and gloves are wet, feet and hands are numb. The snow is getting deeper. I’ve been on this track since breakfast.
I’m on the homeward leg of a circumnavigation of the globe. Over the last 13 months I’ve cycled so far in one direction that I’m almost back where I began.
When a farm house appears, I knock on the door to ask directions. It feels like an eternity standing in the doorway. I know that someone’s home as there’s smoke coming from the chimney. A man opens the door. He looks wary. I forget that I’m wearing a balaclava. I ask for directions in English. He looks stares at me. There’s no need to ask directions. On this track navigation is simple: there are towns in either direction.
I’m really asking for help. I’m a stranger on a cold evening stuck in a blizzard. I’m hoping that he’ll do the decent thing and give me shelter. He stares at me, then beckons me inside. Welcomes me into his home without question. It’s warm and I’m relieved. He says in broken english “is dangerous, outside, you must stay until snow stops”. Aleksandar introduces me to his family and beckons to take off my freezing clothes and warm myself by the fire. I drip all over their spartan kitchen.
Soon I’m warming up with soup. “You stay, until snow stops” he says.
I stay until the blizzard passes. It takes three days. All the while Aleksandar and his family feed and entertain me in their cramped four-roomed house. When I leave I try to pay for my keep, but Aleksandar refuses. I realise later that I ate way too much meat and butter and the hot bath they ran used a lot of wood to heat. And I’m doubly embarrassed that I accepted a big bag of dried fruit, nuts and cured meats from a family clearly living on very little.
But that’s the Kindness of Strangers. When you see someone who needs help, you do what you can. Travelling adventurously teaches you that. People help people when they can.
I was reminded of this last year when I visited the Jungle in Calais. Dan Martin had visited that week too. We were shocked by the conditions of Europe’s biggest shanty town so we set up Kindness of Strangers and ran an event with 3 weeks’ notice. Over 300 people came and we raised almost £7,000 for Oxfam’s refugee appeal. Dan then spent 6 months working in the warehouse in Calais organising the distribution of clothes and supplies.
Each of the people I spoke to at the refugee camp in Calais had been on a difficult journey. They’d travelled thousands of miles from the ends of the Earth. They had endured, overcome challenges, were positive and strong. Crossed deserts on foot and seas in open craft. If they were white and European each one of them could have had a nice career as brand ambassadors and after-dinner speakers. They could have spoken at posh schools and to corporate audiences on the importance of taking risks and staying positive, and above all the importance of never giving up.
Unlike adventurers, however, these people hadn’t undertaken a difficult journey because they were bored of their 9-5 or tired of their comfort zone. They had no choice. They journeyed because their homes had been bombed, their families raped and murdered.
To anyone who has been on a long and difficult journey this must strike a chord. If we make heroes out of those who triumph, who overcome countless obstacles with indomitable spirit, then these people are heroes.
Kindness of Strangers provides adventurers with a platform to share their stories about the Kind Strangers that helped them on their journeys. And it provides the audience a chance to do something positive to help people who need it. Now, more than ever, it is important that we reach out to those that need our help, and that we remember how good we’ve got it ourselves.
Please join us on the 15th of September for an evening of music and stories that will make your heart grow. We’ve got an epic line up of speakers. There’ll be live music and a full bar and 800 other adventurous humans. We’ll be collecting, food, tents and equipment for Calais and aim to raise £20,000 for Oxfam’s Refugee Appeal.
Visit storiesthatmakeyourheartgrow.com and get your tickets. Then come along, laden with unwanted outdoor gear, and enjoy a fantastic evening.
List of Speakers
- Ed Stafford – Survivalist & Explorer, 1st person to walk the Amazon river. Star of Discovery Channel’s “Naked & Marooned” & “Into the Unknown”
- Hassan Akkad – Syrian Refugee, Star of BBC2’s “Exodus:shot by refugees” series.
- Sarah Outen MBE – Adventurer, 1st Woman to row the Indian Ocean, just completed London2London via the world.
- Alastair Humphreys – Adventurer, Author, Violinist.
- Mark Kalch – Adventurer, 1 of Men’s Journal’s “50 most Adventurous Men”, exploring the 7 longest rivers on the 7 continents.
- Leon McCarron – Storyteller, Writer, Filmmaker, RGS Fellow, Produced Series for Nat Geo & several independent feature length documentaries.
- Dr Steve Fabes – Doctor, Explorer, Researcher, spent the last 6 years cycling 86,000km around the world.
- Dan Martin – Extreme Athlete, Cyclist & Cold Water Swimmer, Spent 6 months managing a warehouse in Calais that dispenses clothes and essential items to refugees in the jungle.
- Fearghal O’Nuallain – Geography Teacher, Explorer, circumnavigated the globe by bike, and walked across Rwanda.