People can be some of your greatest discoveries.
Traveling alone is something everyone should do in their lifetime. That is not to say it is necessary to cut oneself off from human contact or to aim purely for self-indulgence - quite the contrary! The strangers you meet out in the world whom you dare bring into your life - even for a short time - challenge you, offer you a new perspective, and give you an opportunity to even explore an alternative reality from what may exist in your brain. You may never see them again, or they may become lifelong friends; it doesn't actually matter. These connections change you, live with you, and give you a chance to explore the unfamiliar with a fresh set of eyes. Although, it is even better if you can carry on knowing you have a new friend.
From November 2022 until June 2023, I traveled around the world, volunteered for over five months with All Hands and Hearts in three different countries, and I had some wonderful experiences. The following are special people whom I met for the first time on this trip (there were so many others, but I had to keep the list somewhat brief, or I would be writing forever):
Bernard the French EnigmaIt was a rather cozy environment to be in a large cabin in the middle of the snow during winter in Poland. This was our volunteer base - the nicest of its kind, in my experience - which had a full kitchen, a ping-pong table, a fireplace, and a certain percentage of moonshine left by the owner for our enjoyment. We had many Europeans come through to volunteer, many of whom were motivated specifically against the war in Ukraine. Bernard was a Frenchman who seemed to enjoy relative privacy in that he claimed often that he was not able to understand English. I don't doubt it was a difficulty for him, it just seemed he was able to express himself fairly well when the need arose. But with this cloak of anonymity, many fellow volunteers collectively decided he might actually be the most interesting man in the world. He speaks Spanish fairly well, which is how we communicated at times, and he is fluent in Arabic. We bonded somehow, maybe in just taking the time to share medicine, food, and simple stories.
We both had an interest in feeding the fire that warmed our home for a time, and we were able to snag two coveted spots on the floor nearest the crackle and heat of the flames. Bernard ushered me over, "Mark, let us sit here and talk like old women."
With only miniscule apprehension about what that would portend, I happily obliged and joined him. Randy Travis lyrics quickly came to mind as I quipped back, "What do old women talk about? Old men?"
Karen the Shout-Outer
Upon arrival in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, two of us were greeted by a small crew, as we were the first volunteers invited after consecutive 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes. The woman first on scene charged with building and maintaining a base that would soon need to accommodate scores of volunteers and staff was a woman named Karen, who spoke with a distinct Boston-area accent. Someone once asked me, in a group setting, what I thought of her, as she was certainly a unique individual - outspoken in an official setting, yet otherwise either reclusive or just not around after work hours and not actively seeking to be one of the crowd. I responded that I very much identify with that stance, in that I enjoyed putting myself out there in ways that make our place more than a workers' bunkhouse but prize some alone time away from it all. She and I never spent much time really getting to know each other, apart from some dawn whisperings around the kitchen, but she immediately entrusted me with liberty to do what needed to be done to build our base and make it a home. This freedom of ownership, nurtured by Karen most certainly fueled my decisions to keep extending my stay from five weeks to my visa's maximum three months. Quick to recognize my insistence on providing nightly pit fires on base, she dubbed me, "Sparky Marky."
Hedaya the Devoted
It is strange how you can spend three months with someone, yet only know them on the surface... somewhat. Hedaya is from Jordan and comes with, of course, Arabic proficiency, which helps when communicating with Syrian refugees, and her expertise in the construction we put so much time and effort into. But most importantly, she is a kind human being who is genuinely interested in helping people. As with many people, I got to know her though the power of food. I took it upon myself to cook quite a bit - especially breakfast - and she was always a willing recipient. I think she was typically up and about several hours before she actually woke up. Clearly, camping is a step outside of her comfort zone. I often felt she would starve or just get by on scraps if I did not feed her, which of course is an overstatement, but I was always happy to have her enjoy my creations.
Tony the Friend
If you had to bottle youthful enthusiasm with British wit and purposeful intention, I do believe it would look a lot like my friend Tony. For five weeks, he was our site leader in Poland as we refurbished a building and repurposed it into apartments for refugees escaping war in Ukraine. We complemented each other as architects of base life in Turkey, as he planted a garden and surrounded us with herbs and flowers; he orchestrated a Coronation Day event on base, complete with a giant meal for everyone, games, and a live viewing on a big screen of his King Charles' special day. I believe Tony is what All Hands and Hearts is all about - balancing the enjoyment of life and travel with a serious attention to the fact that we were charged with helping people build back their lives.
Aly the Bold
Tony's arrival on base in Turkey followed, just by hours, the departure of Aly. People come and go on a volunteer base, and to some extent, you get used to it. It is often a shame that you can't really get to know all of the unique and special individuals who come with various inspirations and stories. Aly and I became friends around the fire, and then making sport of sorting baby food donations at the local university. She has a penetrating wit about her - the kind that can make you laugh without her even breaking a smile. She came to Turkey with serious intentions about making a difference, and in the process made some great friends. We spent much time discussing volunteerism and life, and she challenged me to keep evaluating what it was we were doing, how, and why. Seeing Aly and others waking to the cold of a still-wintery base, facing a rather limited selection of breakfast nourishment, I decided to make pancakes upon her recommendation. That practice would become an event not so uncommon over the following months, so we can credit her with that. It is easy to withdraw from strangers sometimes, but then someone comes along and gives you a reason to put yourself out there; that's pretty special.
Marvin the Marvelous
Everyone loves Marvin. I'm not even sure that's a debatable statement. He is a German explorer and a conscious lover of the world. He prefers not to use air travel or eat meat as notable personal contributions, and he really is a serious builder for other people. As my site leader in the Philippines, he made sure everyone was happy and healthy in the heat and in the rain while we constructed school classrooms. I remember being bummed that I was spending Thanksgiving abroad with no turkey, feast, or family. It was likely a coincidence, since I don't think he is terribly concerned about American holidays, but he ordered pizzas for us all that lunch - a welcomed treat and change from rice and some Filipino viand. Marvin also became staff in Turkey and welcomed me on my day one and immediately put me to work making a table and a kitchen. This tidbit will not do him justice, but this is a guy who is intelligent, caring, strong, fascinating, friendly and uplifting. I do hope to find him again out in the world that he so purposefully intends to improve.
Ryan the Thinker
He would probably object to being characterized as a "thinker," though he clearly is, but he would make an addendum. Perhaps "writer," "observer," or "truth-teller," but I believe he already eschewed the designation of "philospher." Ryan and I would connect in the Poland base lodge from time to time during our long evenings with nowhere to go, where I would make him laugh and he would make me think... or was it vice-versa? Leaving Poland, I traversed eastern Europe, and we teamed up to drive through Romania. We also volunteered together in Turkey, where we had a number of adventures, and then met up in France for another road trip from Paris to Bordeaux. It turns out we both enjoy wine, exploring by wandering with purpose, and talking to strangers. I think he enjoys my non-bellicose nature and I his fascination with discovery. He is writing a book, and being out in the world is what fuels the turbines of his mind. In our short friendship he has already tied Kim from the Philippines for traveling with me in the most countries (4) of any other companions, and usually I travel alone. It seems like further proof that God puts people on our path as part of a plan; Ryan might see it differently.
Ismail and Tahir the Turkish Friends
Early in the Turkey program, we established a campsite for a base at quite a distance from the city, so we were somewhat isolated from stores, restaurants, and of course devastated and precarious structures left from the earthquakes. There was a little town with a few small shops nearby, but little of any recreational opportunities apart from the magestic view of a nearby lake and mountainscape. Oftentimes after work, I would take a walk to see the lake and pop in to see what was available for purchase in the shops, since we didn't have much on base. Also, I was always on the lookout for ingredients and useful supplies, such as pots, whisks, and grill baskets. My favorite shop became the one where the shopkeeper, Ismail, invited me in to enjoy home-cooked food and a beverage... with a heater to save me from the evening chill. Like most Turkish people in the area, Ismail spoke very little English - about as much as I spoke Turkish. But he was always happy to have me in his shop, and he would introduce his family and friends to me as well. One of his friends is Tahir, who is someone who truly enjoys conversing, and his English is exceptional. So, he would translate, and we would have illuminating discussions on everything from politics to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. During my third month in Turkey, having already moved our base way across town into the mountains, Ismail invited me to his wedding, which I was proud to attend the first day of the elaborate ceremony. What joy it is, not only to share moments or stories with people who live where you are traveling, but to be invited into their lives is extraordinary and what keeps me wanting to explore this world.
Zavi Girl, Gekka, and Jeyd - the Family
Just over three years ago this little girl was born, and I saw her nearly every day of her life, yet we hadn't met in person until this January. Her "Mamita" (aunt) and I were very close, so I was privy to near-daily photos, videos, and even video calls. I had already met "Mama" Dolor on a previous trip to Legazpi, and I was so looking forward to meeting the rest of the family. Traveling from the Philippines program to Poland, I gave myself some time to travel to Bulan from Tacloban before returning to Manila. The family took me in warmly, and I felt like an old friend instantly. Gekka was in her ninth month of pregnancy at the time and still working her food stand out on the side of the busy street, and Zavi would "help" as best she could. Jeyd and his parents kindly welcomed me into their home. I had some extra funds left over from our last Tacloban Barangay Kitchen feeding, so Jeyd and friends came up with a plan to feed some of the children there in Bulan. What an adventure to be surrounded by people you've just (or not even) met to rally and cook and distribute Filipino spaghetti to hundreds of kids on short notice. I am so thankful for my time there in Bulan and will always remember their kindness. Hopefully I can meet Zavi's little sister next time!