Biking among strangers
Do you believe in the kindness of strangers ?
Australian Brett Seychell and Britisher Kimberly Kifan certainly do, and so do the countless number of people whose lives they’ve touched during their travels for charity. The duo has spent the past year cycling-yes, cycling-through Europe, the Middle East and Asia and has just wrapped up a short stint in Sri Lanka.
‘The Kindness of Strangers’ is a charity they founded last year when they were looking for a beneficiary for their fundraising cycle tour. Disappointed by the lack of transparency of major organizations, they decided the funds from the expedition would go towards something which they could both keep an eye on, and so the charity was born.
A personally funded tour around the world, of course, means that this kindness of strangers is certainly something the two have had to rely on for the past year. They embarked on their trip armed only with their trusty bikes and basic supplies, and have spent many a night on a kind stranger’s couch sated by a simple hot meal.
The entire trip is personally funded, and Brett and Kimmi are proud to claim that 100% of public and corporate donations are going towards the charity. They’ve cycled almost 10,000 km through the vineyards of France, the mountains of Turkey and the deserts of Iran, and have a treasure trove of stories to tell about each.
A year is a long time, and memories of each country they’ve visited reads like the chapters of a story; and this one begins with Brett. Having cycled to Germany on impulse to watch a football match around a year back, he found to his surprise that he loved every second of it! Kim, at that time a good friend he’d met through their work in the nightclub circuit, was visiting a friend there and they arranged to meet. It was then that they both had a conversation that would change their lives, when they decided to embark on a trip to Australia, with a roundabout route taken on cycle.
Their initial motives were ‘purely selfish’, Brett laughs. But when friends and family offered to sponsor them to cycle for charity, the concept for Kindness of Strangers began to take shape. “We realized we could do a lot of good while still doing what we set out to do,” he says.
However, finding an organization that matched their expectations of transparency proved difficult. They eventually decided that the only way to have their say was to do it themselves, and set up ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, a registered charity which would raise money through the kind donors who would sponsor Brett and Kim’s travels on bicycles across the world.
They started off with France, moving on through the coast to Italy, taking a boat to Albania, then Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Dubai right up to Sri Lanka.
Travelling the world will hold its fair share of excitement and adventure, from being chased by wild dogs in Turkey, to sleeping in mosques and being abducted for a night by gangsters. These ventures into cultures they’ve not known before have opened their eyes to the reality of a multi-ethnic world as well. For example, in Iran Kimmy had to cover her face and walk ten paces behind Brett.
In Kosovo, they found out that children have little chance of education, as the law blocks them from entering school after seven years of age. In Sri Lanka, they learnt that it was not possible to cycle 10 miles without encountering a mosque, a temple, a church and a kovil along the way and people of all ethnicities mingling with each other. Their time in Sri Lanka began from Negombo, from where they cycled to Colombo and then down again to Matara. From here they travelled up to the East Coast, through Trinco, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Dambulla, and Kandy, followed by ‘an absolutely lovely’ downhill trip back to Negombo.
In their travels, they stayed with a Couch Surfer host (couch surfing is the world’s largest travel community that offers travellers a few days stay with hosts they find through the website) in the town of Walasmulla. This is when they eventually founded ‘The Chicken and Egg Project’ in Mi Ella near Walasmulla, with the help of their kind host, an English teacher, Mr. Firdhouse.
The concept of investing in sustainable community projects is one that makes sense. Before investing in such projects, the two will have experienced first hand the community and exactly what kind of help they needed, and can personally oversee the implementation.
They’ve only invested in three community projects so far though (the other two in Kosovo), as Kimmi says they’re very hard pressed to find causes that they believe in. The charity has already raised over 12,000 pounds so far (the target being 15 000 pounds), none of which the couple have used to fund their trip. “Everything goes to charity,” Kimmi explains. “But we’re not going to just give the money away to random projects for the sake of giving it away. Whatever we invest in is self-sustainable and long term, and we appoint a trustworthy person from that community to keep an eye on it.”
Their stay in Sri Lanka has not been without hitches. Kimmi recalls a time in Arugambay when she lost her helmet and had to travel the rest of the trip up to Kandy without one. “I was devastated, because it’s very difficult to find proper helmets and dangerous to ride without one.” To her delight, the rest house proprietor they stayed with in Arugambay called them up with the good news that the helmet had resurfaced, and travelled all the way up to the hills to return it to her- insisting that they give him nothing in return. So it seems that the charity was named ‘Kindness of Strangers’, aptly so. It is based on the notion that Kimmi and Brett are essentially two strangers visiting communities and helping them out. Strangely, it is often those communities themselves that have shown kindness to the two cyclists. “We’ve been helped by complete strangers way more than we’ve helped them,” Brett smiles.
“They themselves are the kind strangers, offering us a couch for the night, a hot meal, directions.”
What is it like cycling across the world, we wonder. How did they mentally and physically prepare themselves for the exertion? Kimmi bursts out laughing. “By stuffing ourselves with every unhealthy food imaginable on the pretext that we’d burn it off!”
“To be honest though, it’s not as hard as it sounds,” adds Brett.
“It’s very nice. Very chilled out. We get to do what we want, when we want. There’s no pressure, no one telling you what to do. You eat what you like, take breaks when you want to, and basically do your own thing.” They estimate they’ll be in Australia sometime in 2013, having set no time restrictions on their travels. And after that? The two have made happy plans to bum it out in Australia in close proximity to Brett’s family, and see where it takes them. Clearly they’ve acquired a taste for the carefree life through their extensive travels!
Their favourite memory of Sri Lanka is one that resonates with many who visit the country. It is the hospitality of the people they meet, the families they stay with, that has touched their hearts. And on the eve of their departure to India, where they plan to spend a while, they reminisce on the many trials but more importantly the joys they’ve encountered in the small island. It may have forced them to unwillingly deviate from plans, but Brett and Kimmy are more than glad for their little island detour.
You can read more about Brett and Kimmi’s travels, projects and other funny stories from across the world on www.kindnessofstrangers.net