How I became a professional stranger and found kindness everywhere
Since 2012 Leon McCarron has travelled 10,000km on foot, all over the world
Leon McCarron is a writer, film-maker, adventurer and “chancer”, who specialises in long-distance, human-powered journeys. Originally from Co Derry, he has cycled from New York to Hong Kong, walked 3,000 miles across China, and trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter desert.
As humans, we are designed to move at three miles (about 5km) an hour. I am not an evolutionary biologist, but I know this to be true. (I read it in a newspaper article about evolutionary biology.)
Now, in the age of immediacy in everything from news to transportation, to choose to move at this speed - in other words, to walk - for an entire day, or for a week or a year, might seem unusual. It should not be. We’ve been doing this for 60,000 years: walking is our natural rhythm. To walk for any length of time forces us into a slowness of movement, thought and relationships and, in the twenty-first century, it has the added benefit of allowing us to draw connections between people and places and ideas that would otherwise be lost in our helter-skelter world.
Since the summer of 2012 I have travelled more than 6,000 miles (almost 10,000km) on foot. The journeys upon which these footfalls - 20 million of them - have taken place have been varied in location, theme and outcome, and as such I’ve struggled to find adequate terminology to describe them; expedition seems too grand, adventure too vague. I have settled for now on simply calling them, unhelpfully, “long journeys” - a turn of phrase that has yet to catch on.
These long journeys have made my feet and legs initially painful, then ultimately stronger. My heart too is undoubtedly in much better shape than it was when I began, but most interesting of all is what happens externally when I walk. I am able to observe places and details that I wouldn’t otherwise see, freed as I am from the constrictive ribbons of tarmac that slice across our landscapes, and I meet people whose paths I can only cross because I am on foot. The stories that I hear, and am then part of, in these instances are what make walking journeys so unique and immersive; I sometimes think that I could draw maps of where I’ve been based not on geographical features but on interaction, conversation and hospitality.
In 2015 I set off to walk a loop of the Holy Land, from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai. Over the course of five months and 1,000 miles I walked through the verdant green hills of the West Bank, down the rocky spine of Jordan and then out across the vast deserts and granite peaks of Sinai. It was a journey that utilised pioneering new hiking trails in the region; trails that themselves had grown out of well-used, centuries-old Bedouin paths and, before that, from the pilgrimage routes that criss-crossed the land between religious centres. Even these were recycled, having developed atop the trading thoroughfares that connected the ancient empires of East to West and, originally, from the paths blazed by our adventurous ancestors as they strode out of Africa.
I wanted to use the trails to see another side of the Middle East, and of the region at the heart of some of the most intractable geopolitical problems of our time. I hoped that these layers of history underneath my feet would help as I walked, and what I found, overwhelmingly, was a landscape where the noise of the contemporary divisions has overshadowed the fundamental truth of the Holy Land; that it is still a place where kindness and hospitality span the voids created by religious and ethnic detachment.
Near the town of Jericho, not long after I set off, I stayed in a refugee camp with a woman called Umm Huda. She ran a women’s cooperative and found a place for me to sleep, then fed me until I nearly burst, saying, “What would your mother say if she knew you weren’t eating enough? Have more chicken!” In the morning she knocked on the door to tell me that she’d made sure there was hot water for me to bathe with; this in a town where running water is unreliable at best for residents, and the idea of heated showers a rare luxury. My gushing thanks were dismissed with a slight blush: “You’re a guest here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Farther north in the West Bank, a young shopkeeper called Amir - a bear of a man with a huge, silky beard - saw me walking past and rushed out of his doorway to wrap me in a hug so tight that my sunglasses popped off. “Come in!” he shouted. “You must let me make you some lunch.” Later he took me to his mosque, just to make sure I knew how peaceful Islam was. “See?” he said inside the ornate doorway where rows of sandals lay discarded, awaiting the return of their praying owners. “It’s just like a church. Why would people be scared of this?”
The next day, in a church in the next town, I had a remarkably similar experience and I told my Christian host, George, that it reminded me of Amir and the mosque. “Of course it does,’ he said. ‘Kindness should not change based on religion.”
These small acts of generosity towards a traveller apparently in need became the rule rather than the exception. Once or twice a day in the West Bank I would be ushered into the home of a stranger and a cup of sweet black tea would be pressed into my hand. Food would usually follow; often huge platters of eggs and hummus and olives and tomatoes and za’atar spice, all gloriously fresh and local, and delicious.
This trend of regular, uninhibited hospitality then continued, I was happy to note, as I passed into Jordan and onwards towards Sinai. Kindness does not stop at checkpoints and borders. In the verdant green hills of Ajloun in northern Jordan I would sit with Bedouin, watching their flocks of sheep roam the hillside, and we’d share viscous black coffee and thick labneh bread, baked fresh in the ashes of the fire. “Why did you invite me to eat with you?” I would sometimes ask. The replies varied: “Because you’re a guest”, “Because I wanted to know where you’re from”, “Because you looked hungry and tired”, “Because it is an excuse for me to drink more tea, and I am addicted to the sugar.”
I used to worry that, with such intense regularity of experience, I might become complacent or simply begin to expect to be looked after, but kindnesses are not memories that wear thin. We remember them long after the other details of a chance meeting are gone. This too is something to be grateful for.
The Land Beyond
The story that I recall most fondly from my journey in the Holy Land came from a man called Mahmoud outside the city of Kerak. I had just emerged from the third and final of the “great wadis”, vast canyons that cut across Jordan, each at least 800 metres deep. The sun had fallen like timber beyond a jagged horizon and the last light of day exploded laterally across the sky, illuminating for a final brief moment a small country road along the plateau.
Two small houses flanked my progress and, outside one, a small and compact man wearing a fine broad moustache watched me advance. “Ta-al,” he said quietly, instructing rather than asking: “Come”, and, taking me by the hand, he led me into his front room. “You must be very tired. I wonder if you would permit my sons and I to wash your feet? Afterwards, perhaps we can eat dinner together.” The biblical scale of his gesture was not lost on me and it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
Even when my boots were removed and the toxic stench of month-old socks revealed, the offer was not rescinded and cool water was poured over my soft, fleshy feet. Later, over a dinner of maklouba, where chicken and rice are cooked together and then served by upending the pot like a sandcastle, I asked Mahmoud what he first thought when he saw me. “I already told you,” he said. ‘I thought you must be tired.’
“But did you not wonder what I was doing?” I persisted. “That was not my business. There is time for that once you are rested and fed.”
The remains of dinner were pressed into a box and set beside my bag as Mahmoud’s sons prepared me a bed for the night. I tried to refuse the food - there was enough to feed his family for at least another day and I knew he was not a wealthy man, but he brushed me off once more.
Later, another generous stranger summed up both Mahmoud’s kindness and many of the other experiences I had of unsolicited hospitality. “In Islam we have a saying,” he told me. “Give without remembering, and take without forgetting. This is how I live.”
In a region from which it seems we now hear only stories of conflict and despair, why is it that I was treated so well? A friend in Jerusalem thought the answer simple. He attributed it to the story of Abraham, or Ibrahim, the patriarch to over half of humanity and the original backpacker in the Middle East. In the desert, he said, Abraham’s tent was left open at all four corners so that travellers from every direction would know they were welcome to take shelter. That spirit of openness and kindness that Abraham represented, said my friend, as borne out through scriptural and oral traditions, has filtered down through the generations to his descendants. It should therefore be no surprise that hospitality is still prevalent.
Perhaps this is true. If we take the Abrahamic inheritance out of the question for a moment, however, why else do people react like this? And is it something that is restricted simply to a sacred landscape? Of course, it is not. I have found the same thing everywhere that I have been. In the US, on the first day of a long journey when I was still fresh and scared and undoubtedly lost, an elderly man in a New York Knicks cap gave me a $20 bill and paid for my breakfast at the diner where we met. “Use that money to have an adventure,” he said, “and when you’re done, head back home and get a good job.” I fulfilled half of the deal, at least.
In Patagonia, when I rode a horse across Argentina and made use of hooves rather than feet, I was brought into the remote estancias that dot the wastes of the southern steppe. As in the Middle East, food and drink were served first, and questions asked only later once it was clear that I was rested and satiated (a notable difference, however, was that the tea and chicken of the Holy Land were replaced with Argentinian wine and steak - both options have their merits).
I have found the same sense of hospitality in Spain when walking the Camino de Santiago, in Rwanda, in New Zealand, in Vietnam. In China a man I’d never met invited me to spend Chinese New Year with him and his confused but gracious family. In a Mongolian winter two nomads brought me out of the blizzards in the Gobi Desert to serve me a local delicacy of boiled goat’s intestines wrapped inside more boiled goat’s intestines.
During a six-week journey in Iran I used my tent only once because every village I passed through had at least one person who insisted that I sleep in their home. I consider it the greatest privilege of my life to have seen so much of the world, and to have that experience accompanied by these spontaneous, consistent acts of kindness. Whenever there have been people around I have never gone hungry, nor ever stayed lost. I have only ever been refused water once in my life, and that was in Wales (and, admittedly, that in itself was an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise wonderfully welcoming bike tour).
Here’s what I think. The kindness that is shown from strangers, to strangers, is something that is in our DNA. As well as not being an evolutionary biologist, I am also not a geneticist, so perhaps take that statement in the metaphorical way in which it is intended. I am, however, a walker, and a professional stranger, and I have found kindness everywhere.
Hospitality is not location-dependent. It is, rather, an innate response to seeing someone vulnerable or in need. Everyone who has looked after me as I’ve walked has done so, as far as I can tell, because they want to. It does not seem to be an obligation, which would make it something else entirely.
That said, however, this is probably a good point at which to note a few other factors that inform my experience and the response that I receive. I am white. I am a male. I travel with both a British and Irish passport, and I wear Western clothing. My gear is expensive by most standards around the world and, no matter how dishevelled I look nor how bad I smell, it is immediately obvious to most that I meet that I am travelling out of choice. That is to say, the joys and hardships that I face are self-inflicted. I have decided to put myself in uncomfortable or unusual situations.
It is inconceivable that these things would not affect how I am treated. I attribute much of the intimacy of my journeys to the act of walking, but it’s true too that I take those steps with an imbued privilege. This is an unfair advantage that I have done nothing to earn; in the lottery of life, I happened to luck out. I cannot say what experiences I would have had if any of my characteristics changed, but it is likely that some - perhaps many - would have been different. My perspective, therefore, is skewed, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve concluded.
Fear of strangers
There is now an increasing fear of the stranger. The idea of “otherness” being a bad thing, or something to be afraid of, is growing. We see this, as I write, through recent political upheavals in the UK and the US, and under the dark cloud of rising populism across Europe. That fear of “the other” grows, primarily, through the mass media; through the misrepresentation that the world we live in is riven with perpetual conflicts, and that it is an inherently dangerous place. This is nonsense.
Up close, at ground level, through first-hand experiences, I have found that as a species we are much more similar than we are different. There are fears and biases, of course, but there is still an intrinsic goodness among people and no matter what it is that divides us, that which unites us is much stronger. In the absence of any religious beliefs in my life, this notion is perhaps the bedrock of my personal philosophy.
It’s worth repeating: despite everything that we might hear about the wars and atrocities and despair - which do exist of course, but do not define us - people are fundamentally good. One of the frontiers of modern-day travel and exploration then, to my mind, is the attempt to combat this notion that we live in a broken world, and we can do this by celebrating our diversity and cultural heritage.
Here, then, is my challenge to you, the reader. Go out into the world. Go to the places that you would normally visit and also to those that you would not. Spend time with people. If you can, walk, and if you do walk, be sure that you are walking to listen. Absorb the stories you hear and perhaps share some of your own. Then, when all is said and done and the trail beneath your feet has run out, return home and share what you have learned. We live in the digital age, and we can disseminate the findings of our explorations with greater ease - and to a larger audience - than ever before.
Let’s remember too that the negativity - that of the evil world, full of bad people - will be spreading just as fast, so we do this not just for personal indulgence nor self-gratification. We do this to push the narrative of a good world. The world that I live in is one in which the majority of strangers share the same basic hopes and dreams, and go out of their way to show kindness to anyone that may pass by their tent or house, along road or trail. I hope that’s the world you find too and, if so, I can’t wait to hear about it.
Leon McCarron is a writer, film-maker, adventurer and “chancer”, who specialises in long-distance, human-powered journeys. Originally from Co Derry, he has cycled from New York to Hong Kong, walked 3,000 miles across China, and trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter desert. This essay is extracted from The Kindness of Strangers, a new collection of travel tales from adventurous people, edited by Fearghal O’Nuallain and published by Summersdale for Oxfam. See storiesthatmakeyourheartgrow.com