The news – and our own social media feeds – are often dominated by travel horror stories: complaints about flight cancellations, robberies, pick-pockets, and kidnappings. Rarely do we get to hear stories of compassion and kindness; of people helping, guiding, and supporting one another as they cross countries and borders. The result: travel is framed as a daunting, intimidating experience; not one that fosters personal growth and relationship building.
This past summer, four of my friends I and I had an experience that rivaled that popular narrative. We participated in the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile car journey from London to Mongolia, traveling across twenty countries. We were successful; but, we may not have been had it not been for the benevolence of completely random people along the way.
Our mission, to travel the 10,120 miles in 30 days, left us very little room for error. Unfortunately, with the motley crew that we had put together, it didn’t take long before those errors started to pile up. On one very first day, July 19, we left London, had dinner in the Champagne region of France and then attempted to make it to Zermatt, Switzerland. Running low on gas, we stopped at seven gas stations between midnight and 2am only to realize that none of them would take our credit cards. Finally, around 2 in the morning on the border of France and Switzerland, one of our cards finally worked. Our tank was marked at below zero.
An innocent bystander would have thought that we had just won the Superbowl: we were cheering loudly, throwing high fives around and bumping chests. Armed with a fresh tank of gas, we jumped back in the car ready for Zermatt.
Our car wouldn’t start.
“Khaled, what kind of gas did you put in our van?”, I asked.
“I put in regular gas. See right there, it says Gazole”, Khaled replied. His heart quickly sank after he entered ‘Gazole’ into Google Translate and realize that it was French for ‘Diesel.’
Since no one had experience with engines, we feared our trip was over. It was only day one! With nothing left to do that night, we set up tents at the gas station and strapped mini skateboards to our feet with duct tape, skating around the parking lot until morning.
We awoke to the gas station attendant tapping on our van window. He spoke no English but understood what had happened when we pointed to the Gazole pump and showed a frown face. Our original plan was to spend day two driving through Zermatt and into Italy for dinner, but there was huge line up of cars at his shop; we feared we wouldn’t even make it to Switzerland that night.
Immediately, however, and to our surprise, the attendant pushed out every other car that he had been working on, lifted our van, and started to drain the diesel from our tanks. He then rewired our entire malfunctioning electrical system so that it was able to handle the number of cameras and phones that we were plugging into it. Within just a few hours we were ready to go, the car in better shape than when we had arrived. And, if that wasn’t enough, he gave us a bottle of Rhone Valley wine as a parting gift (which we happily drank atop the Zermatt mountain range a few hours later!).
We thought this was simply a one-off stroke of luck, but generosity from random strangers became a reoccurring theme for us throughout our trip; in fact, we never would have reached Mongolia without the help with others.
Just a week after what became known as “the famous Gazole incident,” having passed through France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, and most of Turkey, we had a second run in with kindness. Our team was exhausted after an all-night drive and a 4am wakeup call for a sunrise balloon over Cappadocia. Only Brian and I were awake as we drove toward the border of Northeastern Turkey and Georgia. To keep from falling asleep at the wheel, I blasted a old-school buffet selection of Tupac, Biggie, and Ja Rule and we rapped to childhood memories. Unfortunately, with the others asleep and the navigator and driver distracted doing their best impressions of Eminem in “The 8-Mile,” we blew right past our turnoff and decided to just “take the next” turn north.
Four hours later, moving three miles per hour, our pink van was bottoming out as we realized that we were driving directly over the Pontic mountain range. None of the “roads” were on the maps that we had bought and they continued to fork through different sets of mountains. Our first stroke of luck came when we passed by the first group of people that we had seen in hours. A young boy on a motorcycle offered to escort us in the direction he thought we were headed. For an hour, he drove slowly along the dirt roads while we did our best to follow him. Then he pointed us toward a turn that we definitely would have missed had he not been there, smiled, and waived goodbye.
A few treacherous hours later, with the sun down, we decided to set up camp at a fork in the road. We were running low on water, food and gas, and had no spare tire. Our team was starting to worry. We hadn’t seen a car or person since the boy on the motorcycle, but as soon as we parked for the night, a faint headlight appeared in the distance. Fearful that it would be our only chance to ask for directions, I ran up to the car and put on my best ‘confused’ face as I said the name of the city we were trying to get to. The driver and his passengers – presumably his wife and kids – signaled for us to follow him and without hesitation he led us for more than four hours through the mountain range. His car was much better than ours, so he routinely had to wait while we tried our best not to destroy the undercarriage of our own car as we crossed streams, drove around boulders, and skirted huge potholes. Around 2am we finally hit paved road on the other side of the mountains. We were all in complete disbelief, never having thought that we would make it out of the mountains that night.
Most surprising to us, however, was that neither of these strangers had asked for any kind of reimbursement or compensation. We had even offered the boy on the motorcycle a pack of American cigarettes, having seen him smoke earlier in the day, but he refused to accept it. The family man had also simply waved and wished us luck before making a U-Turn and heading right back into the mountains to continue on to wherever he was going before he had met us. We had been in an incredibly vulnerable position, yet it gave us an opportunity to see and experience compassion and kindness from complete strangers in ways that we would have never anticipated.
That night, we camped on a grassy patch in the nearest city and counted our blessings. Our plan was to wake up early the next morning and head for the Georgia border. Little did we know that within hours, we would again be relying heavily on a complete stranger to keep our mission to make it to Mongolia alive.