Dirt Tracks 5: The kindness of strangers
Before I left on this epic journey, I had a coffee with Ben, a friend in Bristol. He was there for me when the anxiety of the approaching expedition seemed overwhelming and we set up regular times to WhatsApp call en route. He gave me some wise advice as we parted. It was something like this,
“Before Pete leaves, make a plan for how you’ll deal with the challenge of loneliness before it arrives.”
He was right. It’s good to prepare for a season of darkness when it’s still light.
As I poured over maps and plotted my route in the weeks before the trip, I took note of the desert towns along the way. The Shvil trail has a wonderful feature that became my saving grace on this journey.
A wide range of kind people living near the path, known colloquially as ‘angels’ offer to host weary travellers for a night or two, to give moral support and much-needed encouragement, not to mention a comfy bed, a hot shower and a hearty meal for the restless wanderer.
I found the forum online where trail angels post their availability, and every couple of days, I would text ahead and arrange a visit.
I remember my first night as a guest. I rolled into the small pepper-growing village of Paran in the heart of the Negev. Noam, my host, willingly surrendered his room, I couldn’t stop him, and he stayed next door with a friend while I had my first shower in five days and the first night of sleeping through till dawn since starting the walk.
It was heavenly.
In the morning, he came back from his early shift on the farm to cook a magnificent Shakshuka, a North African dish of tomatoes and eggs from where his family hails from, complete with all the trimmings, salty sardines, crusty bread, sweet dates and fresh olives.
While my laundry was flapping gently on the line in the warm rays of sunshine, we chatted life, faith and society late into the day and as the heat of noon waned into the cool of the late afternoon, I set off again into the desert, clean, well-fed, restocked with supplies and ready to take on the world.
This pattern was repeated over the coming weeks, time and again. I would stumble into a village after a couple of days in the wild; broken, exhausted and starving, and a trail angel would take me in, treat me like an old friend and renew my strength for the paths ahead.
Some were religious, others secular, there were families and singles, young and old, those from European descent and others from North Africa, Iraq, Iran and further east.
They were doctors and teachers, farmers and builders, scientists and lawyers. Some were keen to see my photos of the wilderness, others were fascinated by my faith (Christians are the minority in this land), still others wanted to know my opinion on the 'tough topics' about politics and justice. Often they just wanted to share trekking stories.
Every moment was dignified with openness and respect, every shared meal was marinated in grace, everyone I met lived up to the title of ‘trail angels’.
The manager of Philip Farm, near Tel Keshet, greeted me with a strong coffee, a heap of fresh Bedouin flatbread and a selection of soft cheeses and olive oil from the farm.
A lawyer in Meitar offered to drive my tent to Jerusalem to save me carrying it, and a lemon farmer furnished me with a walking pole to ease the strain on my feet.
There were even those who weren’t officially on the trail angel list, who bailed me out on the spur of the moment, the group of Jewish teenagers who insisted I take their precious ‘Halvah’ for energy (a rich dough of tahini and sugar), the scientists from Tel Aviv who made me coffee on a hill-top and two Israeli girls who got a friend from Eilat to restock my water when I was dangerously low.
I remember one particularly enduring day when I had got lost (shame for a geography teacher I appreciate), on the final stretch to Jerusalem. I had left the desert by this point and it had been raining for three days. Unlike in the Negev, the days were cold, the winds were icy and the relentless mud was like glue for mile after mile after mile.
My feet were a mess, I’d narrowly seen off a trio of angry dogs and I was exhausted.
Rolling up to a kibbutz, with rain pouring down my hood, a lady called Michal, who was visiting her mother, invited me in for coffee. The whole family were there and for some un-be-known reason, they greeted me like a returning hero. I had never met these people, yet to them, it was as if I were a brother.
I joined them for coffee, then dinner, then cake, then more coffee.
Michal lived in another town twenty miles to the north, so a couple of days later I joined them again. We ate a perfect dinner of eggs and cheeses and I drank red wine from Galilee with Omer, her husband, the lemon farmer.
After comparing photos from the desert (he was keen hiker too), we sat down for a brew, with my muddy boots by the roaring log fire, stinking out their beautiful house.
It soon occurred to me just how utterly redeeming an act of kindness can be.
No matter how challenging the trials of the day had been, they were frequently eclipsed by a glorious evening with new friends. I recall a quote from one of my favourite childhood authors, Roald Dahl,
“Kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else… To be kind - it covers everything” [i]
It wasn’t just Israelis who greeted me like this. As the trail wound north, I took a detour into the West Bank to visit a Palestinian family I knew in Bethlehem from a previous visit and experienced the same warm embrace of trust and friendship.
I stayed with them for three nights and was treated as one of the family.
We drank their fragrant, bittersweet Arabic coffee, laughed as their kids sang and danced their way around the living room and chatted late into the night about their hopes and dreams for peace.
On a previous visit to the Holy Land with a team from Bristol, I had spent a week in the West Bank with Arab friends, joining a Palestinian farmer for the olive harvest, meeting heroic teachers in Aida refugee camp and smoking shisha with some of the leaders of a non-violent resistance movement in Beit Sahour.
Despite the desperation of their situation, I was treated like a friend and a brother. Their kindness was my first glimpse into the hope and beauty of the Middle-East and I will never forget it.
For all the stories of conflict and division that are sprayed across our newspapers like shrapnel, my simple encounters are testimonies that are rarely heard, insights into a rich hospitality culture, of people who are fighting for peace in the corners of the land far more than the supposed leaders in the limelight, moments where kind strangers became close friends.
I wonder if, 2000 years ago, Jesus’ young family experienced the same blessings that I have encountered on this raw and beautiful expedition?
Compared to Jesus, I’ve had it easy. He would’ve needed the kindness of strangers out there in the wilderness, far more than me.
Did he meet any unsung heroes on his own path?
Maybe he did.
For one, his teaching is littered with stories of exactly this sort of hospitality. There are frequent parables about banquets, where the poor, the lame and the outcasts are invited in for a feast they could never repay. There is the tale of the man who wakes his neighbour to borrow bread for a visiting companion who turns up unannounced at midnight.
These acts of compassion were the cornerstones in the culture Jesus created, but the examples he used may have been more than hypothetical.
Jesus never limited his teaching to Jewish hospitality either. Possibly his most famous parable is that of the good Samaritan. For Jesus, showing unconditional love was necessary not just to friends, or even strangers… but to sworn enemies.
His kindness knew no bounds and when the time eventually came to lay down his life, he showed mercy to even those involved in his execution, healing the soldier in the garden who Peter sliced up with a sword, redeeming the rebel who was crucified next to him, even forgiving the very killers who drove nails into his wrists.
Did the man who demonstrated such unmerited compassion as an adult, also catch a glimpse of it as a child?
As a refugee fleeing to Egypt in the dead of night, he would have relied on the kindness of strangers to care for him on the road. And even when the gifts of strangers on the road may have failed them, might Joseph and Mary still have produced the pennies to buy food for the journey? Was this fateful journey actually funded by the extravagant gifts of gold, given to them by a group of Eastern Magi, days before they set off? [ii]
As I navigate the messy landscape and politics of the Middle East, I do so from the point of view of someone who, like Jesus, has experienced kindness in every corner of the land, from every tribe and tongue.
And I walk this road to raise money for my heroes at A21, an organisation where many generous individuals work tirelessly to rescue trafficked people, for the joy of seeing a fellow human being set free.
As for my journey, I’m eternally grateful to the magnanimous friends who provided for me on my path, whose kindness I cannot repay.
When I say, ‘I wouldn’t have made it without you’, I really mean it.
To support the journey on behalf of A21, click here
Up next... Dirt Tracks 6: The False Summit
[i] Roald Dahl in an interview with Brian Sibley in November 1988, BBC World Service.
[ii] Matthew 2: 1-23.