Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Have you been helped by someone you’ve never met? Leon McCarron recalls the kind acts he’s encountered on the road, ones that remind him—and all of us—that the world isn’t as hostile as we may think.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to write an essay about kindness. It seemed like it would be rude to refuse.
The essay was eventually published in The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow. For its editor, Fearghal O’Nuallain, the impetus for the book came from trip he and two colleagues made to the Jungle Camp in Calais. After years of traveling himself—times of vulnerability and putting himself at the mercy of those he met on the road—he describes being “shocked that people from countries where I’d been welcomed and met with hospitality were being treated so badly.”
The next step was to try and help those stuck in the refugee camps somehow. “We set up a platform to raise funds for refugees and tell stories to remind people of our shared humanity,” he says.
For my essay in the book, I wrote about walking through the Middle East, and being taken into homes to be looked after; at one point, even having a stranger wash my feet. And reading the stories from other authors, it became clear that my experiences were far from unusual.
Fearghal talked to me about kindness being one of the “core elements of what it means to be human.” Dan Martin, who co-founded the Kindness of Strangers platform, also writes about how kindness “is no one thing … it has no language and no bounds. It’s in all of us to be kind, and everyone is looking for opportunities to be kind.”
In the same way you might reflexively reach out to steady someone if you see them trip, I’ve noticed many people offer me help before they’ve even processed it themselves.
I frequently acknowledge that I’m deeply privileged—not just to be able to travel so frequently, but also because travel gives me such regular opportunity to see up close this deep-set, caring feature of humanity. For 10 years, I’ve been professionally vulnerable, trusting strangers not to harm me and, as if that wasn’t enough, hoping that they’ll go a step further and help.
I’ve experienced many different types of kindness, but there are three ways that stand out as the most common.
The first is the immediate, visceral urge to help. In the same way you might reflexively reach out to steady someone if you see them trip, I’ve noticed many people offer me help before they’ve even processed the act themselves.
On a long hiking journey in the USA at the end of 2018, an elderly woman crossed three lanes of traffic and skidded her SUV to a halt to hand me a bottle of water. “It’s hot,” was all she said. Then, as an afterthought: “I hope you don’t mind.”
I told her I was very grateful, and she drove off. These acts of kindness don’t take much, but mean a lot. Sometimes, more than the stranger knows.
Nine years ago, on a bike trip in Vietnam, a school teacher pulled up alongside me in his car and offered to take me for dinner if I reached his town that night. Just an hour earlier I’d nearly been hit by a truck, and was still shaking. To see a smiling face and an extended hand of friendship, literal or otherwise, dragged me back from my despair.
The second type of kindness is what I call the delayed act. On more occasions than I can remember, strangers who’ve just passed me then turn around and come back to speak to me.
My favorite of all was a decade ago, when I’d just set off by bike across the USA. I was 23, and clueless. About a week after leaving New York City, I arrived into Syracuse just before sunset. I couldn’t afford a hostel, and it was too late to try and keep going much further. A family of three walked past and caught my eye, so I asked if they knew which direction was best to find countryside to camp.
“If we’re not being good to each other, then the world is broken. The way people act here should be a starting point. That’s how I see it. Each day, I try to be even better.”
Reza, pilgrim in Iraq
A woman introduced herself as Carol. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re from out of town. We’re just here to see our son graduate from university, so I don’t know.” I stood by my bike for a while and looked at my large-scale, rubbery, useless roadmap.
Less than five minutes passed before I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Carol. “We’ve had a bit of a family meeting,” she said. “And we don’t think you’re dangerous. So we’d like to invite you to come and sleep on the floor of our motel room.” She smiled.
“My husband also said that if you promise to take a shower and clean off some of that dirt, we’ll even take you out for dinner.”
The final type of kindness I see is the committed, holistic act. In the past, this has manifested in a pilot convincing his airline to give me a flight across the Pacific so I could visit a sick friend, and in a young man in the Jordanian desert dropping everything to walk with me for a week to make sure I didn’t get lost.
Last fall, I went to central Iraq to join a pilgrimage that may well be considered both the largest annual movement of people on earth, and also the kindest. The journey is called Arba’een, and sees anywhere between 10 and 20 million pilgrims of Shi’a faith walk at least 50 miles between two holy cities.
For the entire pilgrimage, almost no money changes hands. Those who attend self-govern, organizing into groups who set up food stalls, water stands, tents for communal sleeps, prayers centers, and areas to gather lost family members.
For more than a week, I found it impossible to spend any money, and with each step I took, I was smiled at and had my hand shaken. I remarked to one pilgrim I met how powerful this kindness was—not just for me, but to all present. “Of course,” said Reza. “If we’re not being good to each other, then the world is broken. The way people act here should be a starting point. That’s how I see it. Each day, I try to be even better.”
If ever you should worry, then, that our world is irreparably broken, then let me encourage you: I think we’re in good shape. There may be a lot to overcome, but we have the tools that we need. And if you ever want a reminder of what kindness to strangers really looks like, let me direct you to central Iraq, where humanity, hospitality and generosity are all alive and well.
You can read more tales of kindness on the road from adventurers such as Sarah Outen, Benedict Allen, Ed Stafford and Al Humphreys in The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow. All royalties go directly to fund Oxfam’s work with refugees