Walking 6,000km, with no money, to prove the kindness of strangers
Henk van der Klok crossed 13 European countries on foot and penniless and along the way was showered with food, shelter and warmth
Henk van der Klok: “Over time, my beliefs changed and I truly believed that the kindness of strangers is something you can reliably depend upon.”
Last April, Henk van der Klok left a well-paid job in Cork to walk 5,800km through 13 countries, raise money for charity – and prove to his father that the world is essentially a good place.
Before embarking on his journey, the former Apple technical adviser handed his wallet, credit cards and cash to his dad. His trip – from the Netherlands to Israel – was to be cashless, forcing him to rely entirely on the kindness of strangers. “I didn’t want to have anything to fall back on because if I got really hungry, and I had a credit card, then I would use it.”
His father, he recalls, simply thought he was mad. “My dad thought I was crazy. That’s because my dad and I see the world very differently. I see a world full of kindness, generosity and people that want to help. He sees a bad, rotten, world filled with people that are out to get you. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this adventure. To show my dad the world is actually a lot better than he thinks.”
It took him a while to work up the courage to ask for food, recalls the 32-year-old Dutch native. “The first few days I was too afraid to ask for food, so I went from supermarket to supermarket, living off food samples. I walked circles through the supermarket, taking snacks until either the food was gone, or they started looking at me sideways. Then I’d move on to the next supermarket.”
Eventually, however, hunger forced him to ring door bells, asking for water and explaining that he had no money. In the time it took people to fill his water-bottle, he says they also usually offered him food. “That’s when I learned that you don’t actually have to ask for food, you just have to give people enough time to realise that they can help,” he says.
Van der Klok also learned to call to restaurants, politely explain about his journey and request that staff put any leftovers into his lunchbox instead of in the rubbish bin. “Mostly, they’d give me a meal then and there. Rarely was I turned away.”
He was also often offered breakfast by hotel staff when he explained his journey and asked for hot water. “Life without money was pretty good. I wasn’t just surviving, I was thriving, and I actually gained a little bit of weight,” he recalls, adding that for the first two months of his journey he carried a special black food bag, which usually contained about two days’ supplies. “It was my food stash, and I always made sure I had one or two days of food in there, just in case no one would feed me.”
As his journey unfolded, however, van der Klok discovered the amount of food he stored in the bag gradually became less, until eventually he realised he no longer needed the bag. “Over time, my beliefs changed and I truly believed that the kindness of strangers is something you can reliably depend upon. Now I was truly living from moment to moment, day to day.”
Every time someone helped him, he says, he had a photograph taken with that person, which he uploaded to his Wall of Kindness, a “giant collage of pictures that I had on my website”.
He showered in lakes or at quiet times on beaches and occasionally even sneaked into a local hospital for a covert wash. “Sometimes I snuck into hospitals, walked around until I found a shower, locked myself in, and simply took a shower there. Nobody ever said anything.”
He slept on benches, in his tent, in churches and private homes and no matter where he went, he says, he was met with kindness. “In Turkey, I met many Muslims. I also met quite a few Christians, and even the occasional atheist. No matter if they believed in God, Allah, or science, they all fed me with the same heart-warming kindness. Which means the kindness of strangers goes beyond religions, it is human nature.”
That isn’t to say the journey was a complete cake-walk. “Sometimes I ate nothing. Sometimes I ate only dry bread. There were blisters, and ant infestations in my tent. In these moments, the only thing that kept me going was trying to find the gift hidden in the adversity.
“I believe what really matters in life is not what happens to you, but how you react to it. If you can redirect your focus to find the gift in your setbacks, you become unstoppable.”
As he neared the end of his journey, he says – it finished at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on November 9th – his story was making international headlines.
“I’m completely swamped with TV and newspaper requests from Israel and Holland,” reveals van der Klok, whose walk also raised about €300 for his chosen children’s charity, Acorn Overseas.
Although he plans to settle in Cork again from January, he’s already planning his next adventure, to begin in 2020, on the theme of ‘Journeying between the two coldest inhabited places on earth’.
Henk van der Klok’s survival tips for the cashless traveller
1) Free bread from bakeries
If you go to bakeries, preferably at the end of the day, and ask for some old bread, they will more than likely give you bread that is still fresh. “I literally got bags full of bread from countries like Holland, France, and Italy, Albania, Turkey, and Israel.”
2) The lunchbox pitch
Call to a restaurant with an empty lunchbox, explain you’re travelling without money, and ask if staff can throw leftovers into your lunchbox rather than in the trash. They many offer you a meal then and there.
3) Hotel breakfast
Call to a hotel, ideally around 9am. Explain you’re travelling without money. Ask for hot water. They may offer you breakfast.
4) Charge up your electronics
Ask permission in bars, restaurants, hotels, beach resorts, or even churches. They will almost always say yes, and after a while they might even offer you a coffee or a sandwich.