Saving the world with a bicycle (or not)

by tkos on September 12, 2012

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‘I want my life to mean something. I want it to be significant. I know this may sound stupid, and I haven’t really told anybody this before, but I think I want to try and save the world.’

Kimmi threw it out there like she was offering a coffee, but it didn’t detract from the sincerity of her tone. Her eyes,  stared deep into mine as she searched for any sign of belittlement or ridicule of the deepest confession of her life’s purpose. For Kimmi, this was a moment of truth in our relationship. She had confided a deep and meaningful objective to her existence. One that any friend would simply find too difficult not to mock, yet a partner would simply support without question. I didn’t know it then, but the next sentence out of my mouth would not only define the significance of our relationship, but change the direction of our lives.

‘Ok, doesn’t sound too hard. Let’s have a crack!’

Almost two years after that exchange, over a coffee, in a small Dutch village, we find ourselves without paid jobs, cycling across the world and trustees of an organisation called The Kindness of Strangers. We were spending our life’s savings and after twelve months on the road and over 11,000km in the saddle, we find ourselves in Sri Lanka, attempting to save the world.

Cycling south from Colombo along the coast, the sun shone gloriously in between the downpour of the intermittent monsoon rain.  Pride and internal happiness beamed out through our faces as we were so delighted to finally make it to Asia. All of our expectations seemed to be exceeded from the sounds of incessant tooting of horns on the craziest of roads to the sights of the most bright and colourful of people, not only in their silks and sarees, but in their smile and style. Somehow, it seemed I had missed it so much, despite never having been here before. I just knew that we would find our fourth project of the trip somewhere in Sri Lanka.

‘Princess Grace Orphanage!’ I scream out to Kimmi, who was a hundred odd meters ahead of me, cycling away somewhere between the Sri Lankan south west coast and Kimmi-land . The name rang a bell but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I pushed the pedals and caught up to her, ‘Princess Grace Orphanage!’ I panted between catching my breath.

‘That’s where my best friend Polly used to help when she lived here. Let’s go!’ as she immediately leaves me behind in search of our next exciting project. I click my cleats back into my pedals and do my best not to get left behind again. We enter the long driveway to be met by Angela’s huge smile, almost as if she had been expecting us. We spent the next hour being shown around the orphanage, meeting a couple of the 108 children that were not in school that day. It was a catholic run orphanage and survived on donations. That, and the income of a fruit and vegetable farm a few kilometres away. We liked Angela and felt good about the orphanage, it was in good shape and was well taken care of. They even had a computer with an internet connection. Then we met Father, the head of the orphanage.

Father dressed in what can be best described as some pretty comfortable clothes. He had a huge rice belly protruding from his chest, poking right out and coming into his hips. It almost looked like he was nine months pregnant. What made it a little more odd, is that he lifted his T-shirt to excel the pride in his enormous belly, as if it was some sort of stature of wealth. As we drank tea in the living room, we sat and talked about our previous projects throughout Kosovo and Iran. Father listened with one eye on the television and the other on some biscuits. Kimmi and I exchanged a glance of doubt and almost of disappointment. We like to spend a few days with a project, but in this case, I think we both just wanted to leave. We took note of their bank account details for our donation, took a few more photos and prepped our bikes for the onward journey.

‘I don’t feel really comfortable with giving money to the orphanage when they have a regular monthly donation from a Prince in Bahrain of almost £2000. Father almost sounded like he was bragging when he said that.’ Kimmi stated quite blankly as we cycled down the long driveway.

‘I don’t feel really comfortable with giving money to fat people.’ I responded. And with that we decided not to add to the wealth of the orphanage.

A few kilometres down the road, we found a turtle sanctuary. We paid our voluntary entrance fee of 1000 rupees (£5) and was shown around various pools with various disabled turtles being nursed back to health for release into the wild, while others were there for show. There was also a pool of a few hundred 1 day old, just hatched from the egg, about to make a run for it in the water, turtles. They were being released that night but the guy said only a handful would survive to be adults. He then went on to explain how the sanctuary survived only on donations and that everybody works as a volunteer.

We took some photographs and started to leave. I looked at Kimmi with a question in my eyes in which she took no hesitation in her response. ‘We can’t save the world by giving money to turtles. They can’t even spend it.’

Another 20 kilometres down the road, we came across the Tsunami museum. A small two room open hut, which used to be somebody’s home before it was destroyed back in Boxing Day of 2004. People’s photographs and newspaper clippings from across the world covered the walls, as the story unfolded of the terrible day in which 40,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives. The damage was in the billions as international aid both helped and sometimes hindered the relief project. It was truly a moving and emotional experience, being so close to the site of something so terrible. Something that will always be deep in the hearts and nightmares of the local people.

As we left, Kimmi popped 1000 rupees in the donation box and looked at me with a question in her eyes, and a pre determined answer in her mind.

‘There is not much we can do here. Anything we can afford to donate will simply be a drop in the ocean, figuratively speaking of course.’  Kimmi sighed with agreement.

‘This whole saving the world lark’, Kimmi states amidst a deep ponder. ‘It’s not really that easy. Even giving away some part of the £12k is proving really difficult. I had no idea that spending money could be difficult, I’m usually so good at it!’

The Kindness of Strangers has started out as somewhat of an unwritten book. We always found it difficult to explain the concept to those who bothered to question. Our answers were always vague as we, ourselves, did not always know what we would donate to. Before we left on this epic journey, we thought we might donate to schools, or hospitals, or to individuals who have shown kindness for no return. But now we have learnt what we will not give money to, much more than what we will give money to.

The best way that I can describe The Kindness of Strangers donations policy is that we only support, be it financially or otherwise, self sustainable, income generating, community based projects.

We are not here to give handouts or to give charity. We like to only give opportunity.

It seems that saving the world is a lot harder than I first thought.

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