What is it about our culture that values the standing-on-your-own-two-feet so much?
I have worked hard over the years to master the skills I need to navigate my way through life. To ensure I can tackle whatever comes my way and well, stand on my own two feet. With the exception of spider eradication and car maintenance, I like to think I am doing fairly well on this front.
But does placing such value on personal self-sufficiency come at the cost of something rather more beautiful?
These past few weeks spent travelling across China, where I don't speak the language and few locals speak English, has landed me headfirst in a state of dependency that I am highly unused to. Travelling by bicycle, which at times leaves us in far flung corners of already far flung places, only exacerbates our dependency on the kindness of others.
A few nights ago we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere after battling the weather all day. We had set our sights on reaching a highway road stop, with plans to secure a hot meal and spot to sleep for the night. Tired, hungry and starting to get cold, thoughts of shelter and dinner spurred us onwards despite the inclement weather and fading light. As the roof of the petrol station forecourt rounded into view relief flooded through me. We had made it.
But as we grew closer the relief gave way to concern. Unlike previous road stops, here, there were no other buildings. Besides the station itself (completely barred to us), there were only two other concrete buildings which looked long abandoned. We split in three directions. Rebecca to check for other facilities, SVB to check the outbuildings while I tried to reason with the petrol station guard. We are 85km from the previous town. There are no settlements for a further 140 kilometers. It 6.30pm, dusk, and snowing. The guard ignores me, focusing instead on conducting a full security clearance of the single car waiting to be granted access to refuel. I wait. He finishes his checks and grants the car access to the building. I grab the guards attention. We are tired, I motion to him. Cold. We need somewhere to sleep. Can we stay at the station? He dismisses me with a brisk wave of his hand. I get his attention again. Please? We need somewhere to stay. He waves me away, leaving me standing in the freezing conditions, retreating into shelter of his guard house.
Rebecca motions that her search has returned nothing. The convenience store marked on our maps is long closed, its doors padlocked shut.
We are out of fuel. Since arriving in China we have only managed to get fuel for our camp stove once despite multiple attempts. It is rapidly looking as though we will need to seek shelter in a drain and use whatever snacks we have left to fashion some type of meal.
Suddenly SVB calls to us from across the muddy parking area.
What I had taken to be abandoned buildings are in fact not. Or at least, one of them isn’t. We traipse across with our bikes and step into the inviting warmth of this simple building. Two kindly faced women motion to us to sit at one of their few tables. We slump into the stools as they bring us hot cups of chai and fresh bread rolls. Moreover, they pry open the door of the shack next door and motion to us that we can sleep there. It is dirty and cold, but it is sheltered from the wind and it is dry.
It is all we need.
In due course we learn that these two kind women cook for the workers of this petrol station in the middle of nowhere, where everyone must live on site. We are humbled by their generosity. For their kindness in opening their door to us and allowing us to share their table and partake in their food.
The following day we are once again on route. The air is icy after the previous days snow. We begin the day with a long descent and while it is a welcome change after the constant slog of the previous day, we struggle to stay warm. Oddly, we come across a road toll booth in this vast uninhabited valley. The attendants are slightly slack jawed at our arrival. You must be freezing, they motion. Yes, we nod. Follow me, comes the response. We are led through locked security gates into their accommodation complex and ushered into another warm room. Here, we are brought mugs of coffee and steaming bowls of noodles. We almost bring the toll centre to a standstill when we leave, with staff popping out from their booths to get selfies with these crazy cyclists.
If I spoke the language. If we were traveling by a mode other than bicycle. If we were self-sufficient and without need to rely on the kindness of the locals then we would miss these incredible moments of connection. The shyness of the people in this region may have led me to characterise them as unwelcoming. But our dependency has provided us the opportunity to learn otherwise.
We lose opportunities for connection when we remove all need to rely on others. When we insist on doing things ourselves. When we ensure our plans are neatly in place. The warmth and the generosity of these kind souls has taught me a lesson. Not only to care for those who may cross my path in future. No. A more important lesson. The beauty of having to rely on each other. The way it draws humans together and forms connection. Provides a space for kindness and delight that transcends culture, language and status.
The kindness of strangers. There is something in it, I am sure.