update 42.

5 random acts of kindness on the road

Tales from our World Cycling Tour

"Let us be kinder to one another."

--Aldous Huxley on his deathbed

22 August  2009

Total kilometers cycled: 60,977

strangers spell danger

Africa must be very dangerous.  How many times have you been robbed?  Weren't you scared traveling through the Middle East?  Those people hate Americans.  Africa is a violent place, I'd never go there.

And so on.  Most people thinking cycling around the world--passing through 'rogues states' like Sudan and Syria-- is a recipe for catastrophe.  Many armchair travelers believe they'll be pick-pocketed, pursued, ripped-off, robbed and maybe even shot at as soon as they cross the border into a developing country.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We've been met with kindness everywhere from Mali to Mozambique and Maryland to Montana.  Here are a few of our favorite Random Acts of Kindness on the Road.

#1  dial-a-meal

Desert cycling is never easy.  Settlements are few and far between and finding food and water is always a major hurtle. One day we were cycling on a sandy track in Sudan's Nubian desert and our stomachs were rumbling so loud they were even giving the camels a start.  Our meager supplies were running low so we silently rejoiced when we saw a building on the horizon. As we approached, it became clear that this was simply someone's home in the desert and not a settlement where we might find a small shop or restaurant.  A tall man in a tall white turban and flowing white robe greeted us in the traditional way of the Muslims, "Salaam Alaikum," peace be with you.  

Cycling in intense heat is physically demanding and we were starving.  
"Is there a village nearby?" we asked. "Restaurant?  Food?  Eating?"  But the man spoke no English and we no Arabic. Finally, we patted our stomachs and then brought our hands to our mouths.  He understood, and motioned for us to take a seat under the shade of a date palm. From within the folds of his robe the dark-skinned Sudanese dug out a mobile, pushed a few buttons and then began chattering into the phone.  All we could understand were the words fuul, the staple dish in that part of the world, and salad.  Moments later another turbaned man appeared balancing an enormous platter of food.  He set the feast before us and motioned for us to eat.  We tore off pieces of soft flat bread and began scooping  up the spicy fava bean dish and salad. After we had finished the last of the fruit and sweets, the older man stuffed our bags full of dates and raised his arm in farewell as we set off back into the desert.

#2  kids to the rescue

In Mali we decided to take a shortcut and found ourselves on a rutted track that ran straight into a ravine.  Stubborn as we are, we weren't inclined to backtrack even though we could see no track on the other side of the gully.  It was impossible to drag the loaded bikes down the steep incline, so we began unloading.  From out of nowhere, a group of little boys, the oldest of which couldn't have been more than six, appeared.  Immediately grasping the problem, they began tugging at the sacks to remove them from the bikes and then plopped them on top of their heads and scampered to the other side.  There they waited for us as we trudged across with the bikes and then the little boys helped us reload.  Before we could even offer any sweets in a gesture of gratitude, the obliging boys disappeared back into the harsh landscape.

#3  saved from the storm

We were being whipped by the wind, pounded by the rain and scared out of our wit's by the lightening strikes as we made our way up one of Jordan's many mountains.  Attempting to cycle was more than misery.  The wind howled with such force that we could no longer ride and had hunkered down by the side of the road to wait out the storm.  Having just come from Africa, we were totally unprepared for the climate.   Many people imagine that the Middle East is excruciatingly hot in summer and just plain hot the rest of the year. It's not.  At higher elevations, winter is cool to cold and it has even been known to snow in Jordan's highlands.  Our clothing did little to keep out the rain and we were soaked and shivering as we squatted and watched the cars splash us as they rushed past.  Nobody seemed to care about our predicament.  

Then we spotted a beat up pick-up truck rattling its way up the steep road.  It ground to halt in front of us and its driver hopped out.  He was a simple man in traditional clothing who had the weathered hands of someone who worked the land. Surprisingly strong, he grabbed my bike and began loading it into the truck bed without saying a word.  When Eric's bike had been secured, we squeezed in next to the driver and he transported us up to the top of the long hill and deposited us at a petrol station.  When he had seen to it that we had shelter, he smiled a warm, toothless smile and continued on his way.

#4  cyber friends
Moral support is as important as material support when you're on your bike pedaling around the world.  New countries, new customs, new food...nothing is familiar.  You can feel alone.  Really alone.  And even the best of friends can start to slack off sending emails after you've been on the road a few years.  There's nothing worse than finally getting access to an internet café and finding your inbox filled with little more than mass-mailing newsletters and requests for money from 'needy individuals' in Nigeria.

Not long after our World Bike Tour began in 2006, two women began writing to us regularly.  Diane, a global volunteer, and Judy, a cycling enthusiast from Vermont, were always kind and encouraging in their emails. We loved having messages that read "Thank you so much for your always fascinating updates!".  Even if our updates are not always fascinating, after a slog slog through Africa those words always brought a smile to my face.  We knew someone out there cared, understood and somehow a friendship developed--even though our only contact is through the cyber world.  Judy and Diane made a difference.

#5  broke but not broken
Traveling in Africa it's easy to become blasé about poverty.  You're surrounded by it.  Kids with bloated bellies and empty eyes beg for scraps of food.  Gaunt women hoe dusty fields in hope of eking out an existence.  Barefoot children in tattered uniforms walk for miles to reach a school dreaming of getting an education and bettering their lot in life.  

No matter how hungry or how poor they are, kids in Nigeria are always intrigued by a white face.  One afternoon we began chatting with a group of young boys playing outside our guest house.  All were in school uniforms except for one boy, and we teasingly asked if he'd skipped school that day.  The boy hung his head in shame and scurried off.

Later the proprietor of the hotel explained that the boy's father had died, his mother was ill (HIV I assume) and unable to work so there was no money to pay school fees.  It was a shame, he added, because the boy was bright.   The family survived entirely on the generosity of others in the community, who themselves were barely scraping by.  

That night I visited the mother in the cramped room the family shared.  She lay on a makeshift cot in their tiny rundown home, unlit, I imagine, because they had no money even for candles.   With the help of my lamp, I gazed at a woman at peace, whose smile radiated love and confidence.  As I left, I slipped a few bills into her hand and she gave my hand a squeeze and said, "the Lord always provides."

What are your experiences with Random Acts of Kindness?  Please share and inspire below.


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