It’s chance encounters – significant and insignificant, people and situations – that have stayed with me, leaving a deep impression.
We’re often asked which country is our favourite so far. And I still don’t have a good answer to that. Often I say that every country we’ve travelled through has been a special experience. There was always something to marvel at, we were always surprised, disappointed – by people. Every country is different, and the rules were never obvious. Every time we learned something about the country and its people, starting to find our feet, the place made that much more sense. We got it. A bit, anyway. For brief moments.
In many countries, people made it very easy for us to get along and to understand. They approached us, these ‘foreigners’ in their strange truck, with great openness. The loveliest encounters were when we were open too, when we were most astonished and learned the most. That’s why every country we’ve visited had something special about it. It’s because of the people we met!
And it doesn’t matter how long we chatted to a stranger, or how in depth our conversation was:
It was their warmth that makes it so difficult to describe.
When, after a long day’s travel, you see and hear the extra-loud laughter of a crowd of schoolchildren, when you’re exhausted and a few soldiers help to change your tyres at 5,000 metres above sea level, when you’re suddenly flashed the world’s most heartfelt smile by a woman at the market, when – just as you least expect it – you’re reminded of the goodness of humanity, it’s not just a wonderful experience. It gives you courage and hope. And it gets you more than a little hooked – to travel, to the unfamiliar and to the many extraordinary individuals in our world.
Sometimes it makes me a little sad that it’s not possible to stay in touch with all the people we met. Social networking and email are a big help, of course, but geographical distance is and remains a hindrance. So these acquaintances are always only short-lived, never as deep as our friendships back home. And that’s fine.
What makes me ever sadder is that in many places so many people approached us that we had to rebuff them, whether because we were dead tired or because we wanted to complete a particular leg of our journey before nightfall. In retrospect I’m ashamed that there were people we met on our travels who must have considered us rather stand-offish visitors to their land.
We try to meet their hospitality, curiosity and sheer excitement over our vehicle with complete openness. And with photos of our home country, a small tour of the truck, and a conversation – mainly conducted with our hands and feet – under the awning over chai and baked goods. We’re also sometimes able to welcome guests to our small, temporary, ever-changing home in a foreign land.
The hospitality shown to us everywhere is simply breath-taking. We bumped into Mehmet, for instance, a hilarious man who quickly took us to his daughter’s birthday party. While they broke their Ramadan fast with delicious Turkish delicacies, we told stories, celebrated, sang and danced.
Then there was Shani, a singer who brewed strong black coffee over a flame – among the rocks of the Turkish Black Sea coast. Later we sang and danced along with the women to his graceful saz music.
There were the wonderful Fathma and her husband Berus, who invited us into their home on our first evening in Iran. Over tea and Persian rice and lamb, the television playing a dubbed Austrian detective series in the background, they told us much about their country, then went apple-picking with us and showed us around the city.
There was the unknown trucker who chucked us several mangoes though the open window as we drove. Or the trucker in Bandar-e-Abbas, who just ‘invited’ us to 120 litres of diesel.
We came across Djavad in Tabriz, an idiosyncratic fellow who lent us his garden, grilled food with us and soon invited his whole family to meet us. Djavad, who accompanied us on the phone throughout our stay in Iran and finally travelled across the whole country to bid us farewell. Djavad, who is still our friend.
Then there were the Indian rangers Steve and Deepti, who let us join their camp fire and told us all about the wild animals in their homeland. Or Michael and Vasan in Kashmir, who invited us into their tent at the pilgrims’ campsite of Baltal, spoiling us with north Indian chapattis and dhal. Or our Unimog-mad friend Kunal, who gave us an insight into the complexity of India and who lost his affection for the Unimog when he got ours stuck in the sand. We all came out the other side, however, and have met up in various parts of India four more times since then.
There were the aging Vladimir and his comrade Dimitri, two dyed-in-the-wool communists who invited us into their Buryat living room for freshly caught fish and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). We brought salad and cakes, and celebrated life to the accompaniment of melancholy folks songs, which the two hunter-gatherers performed on the guitar and accordion. Moved, we left the house on the edge of Lake Baikal with tears in our eyes.
There was the unusual Lamaji Tashi Namgyal, who, out of the goodness of his heart, let us share in life at his Tibetan school for several weeks, allowing us to teach the children and learn ourselves. He will remain in our memory forever, thanks to his selfless behaviour and his positive effect on Spiti.
There were countless people from all nations who invited us to tea or çay, offering us fruit, vegetables and pastries. Or a kilo of dates, ‘just because you’re guests in our country!’
We’re grateful for the smallest screw, every wooden peg, tool and encouraging smile – which, in one situation, was worth more than gold. We were approached with an open mind by all sorts of people who gave us directions or even drove ahead of us on a motorbike so that we wouldn’t get lost.
We’re grateful for every garden we were allowed to use, for the water we downed … for the drinking water we were able to restock, for the firewood that was given us. ‘Do you need help?’ we heard more often than we ever could have expected. And they weren’t empty words, as we discovered. Basically we’re just infinitely grateful for all of those people – for their stories, conversations, parties and celebrations. It would be impossible to fit them all into this account.
But every single story has remained in our memory and in our hearts as one of life on the road’s greatest gifts.
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