“I FELT GOD ALMOST GRAB ME BY THE SCRUFF OF THE NECK”
Theodore Brun spent a year cycling more than 10,000 miles from Hong Kong to the UK
The catalyst for deciding to go was a friend asking me, ‘What’s stopping you?’ when I confessed my daydream of putting on some hiking boots and trying to walk from Hong Kong back to England. I recognised that there was nothing in my life tying me to a particular place. It was going to be the fulfilment of an adventurous dream ? I had studied some of the areas in central Asia in my master’s degree, so for years after that I’d wanted to go to these wild and romantic wildernesses.
Spiritually and existentially I was in a miserable place before I left. I was working for a law firm in Hong Kong, and felt very lonely there. Part of my dream was to leave it behind for a sort of pilgrimage. I wanted to face down various demons ? disappointment, depression and discouragement ? that I felt from a broken relationship. I hoped I would encounter God; I believed it could only change me for the better.
The journey was very hard to begin with. I needed to let my mind settle into it, but a lot of my past seemed to cling to me and take me back to where I had come from. How had life led me to the point where I was cycling up and down sweaty hills in China? The language was also hard, and as I looked at my maps and the tiny indent I seemed to make each day, I thought: ‘I don’t think I can do this emotionally, let alone physically.’ So the first challenge was to reign in my perspective and focus on tomorrow. I learned to deal with each day as it came, which brought freedom and allowed me to experience the joy of the journey.
My relationship with God became very personal, very intimate and fun. There was a lot of complaint to God too. There were tough times, such as when I was in Xi’an over Chinese New Year. It was like spending Christmas on your own. I took a long walk on the old city wall that day. Standing there, I felt God almost grab me by the scruff of the neck and ask me: ‘What are you going to define your life by? A relationship from your past that went wrong? Or by a living, ongoing relationship with me: the eternal one, God almighty?’ The lesson is there for everyone: what do we define our daily existence by?
I had an eye on doing more writing when I came back to England ? so I saw the trip as an opportunity to become the story as opposed to writing a story. I knew it would give me a chance to write a blog. One of the great outcomes of doing this was that it built my confidence to pursue my writing. It’s also given me a new attitude towards projects that feel massive and unattainable; practically I’ve learned how to go about achieving those things. I’m now working on my first novel and I’m applying the same sort of patience and perseverance as I had to put into the journey. It’s a very analogous experience.
“I FOUND IT SO MUCH MORE ENRICHING WHEN I GAVE BACK”
While holidaying in South Africa, Christopher Hill helped build a house for a family living in a corrugated iron shack, in a township near Cape Town
I was working in the City when a friend of mine, who had moved to South Africa and set himself up as a tour guide, invited me to go out and join him. Five of us drove around South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. We did the usual safari and city visits, taking about six weeks.
As part of the trip, he arranged for us to build a house in Khayaletsha, one of the townships near Cape Town. That experience was life-changing for me. The group building was mostly made up of Western volunteers, but the family who would live in the house also got involved, as did various local people. Working alongside them gave me an insight into local life and an opportunity for interaction with the community.
The family had been living in a corrugated iron shack, which was susceptible to the cold and rain. They had four children, and the younger ones were sick. They had cooked over an open fire in the shack, so they also had respiratory issues. Once the house was built, they would have a legal title to the land, opening up access to finance for them, giving them new security and something to hand on to their children.
Working on the project blew away lots of the misconceptions I had about township life. I thought it would be very rough and violent, and there were aspects of that, but the majority of people were just trying to survive. They were warm, humble people and responded very positively to our help. There was cameraderie as we worked together alongside them.
On that trip I found new meaning in Jesus’ words ‘blessed are the poor’ I saw people who had nothing but who were more content than me and many of my peers were. I felt God’s heart for the poor; I say that not in a patronising sense, but I felt it with renewed compassion and understanding.
While I was there, I had this idea to make it possible for other people to have experiences like the one that I was having. It was like a light came on for me. I still enjoyed the sightseeing part of my holiday, but I found it so much more enriching when I actually gave back. I told my friend who was working in the South African tourism business about my idea of combining volunteering with travel. I launched Hands Up Holidays a year later.
I have a sense that that trip to South Africa was orchestrated by God. I feel very grateful for that opportunity. My hope now for those who come on my holidays is that they will have similar experiences to mine ? the blowing away of misconceptions about what poverty is like. Perhaps they will be challenged to live life differently when they return home.
“WE WERE WOKEN UP BY FIVE MEN BRANDISHING MACHETES”
Will Jackson hitchhiked from the UK to Malaysia to raise money for the Trussell Trust. It took six months
The only rule that my best friend Steve and I set for our trip was that we weren’t allowed to pay for transport. Initially, we thought we would drive to Malaysia, but then we realised that we didn’t have a car. So we decided to hitchhike.
We chose to raise money for the Trussell Trust, which runs foodbanks around the UK. The charity is based in Salisbury, where we had grown up. People sponsored us, and all the money we spent on trip (which wasn’t much as the travel was free) was our own.
The trip was quite gruelling at times. We left in July and planned to be back by Christmas, but it was much harder than we had anticipated. We travelled through Iran and Pakistan, both enormous countries, but hitchhiking is not the culture there and it was difficult to make progress. Everyone wanted to pick us up, but they wanted to charge us. If you hitchhike, you are at the mercy of other people’s generosity.
We reached Bangladesh in December. We planned to travel on through Bangladesh, Myanmar, into Thailand and then up to Laos for Christmas. But in Bangladesh we hit trouble. First we were refused entry to Myanmar, and then we were mugged at knifepoint. We had got lost on a long Bangladeshi beach and ended up sleeping there, only to be woken up by five men brandishing machetes. Fortunately we only had the equivalent of £5 on us.
We then had to hitch back across Bangladesh in order to speak to someone from the Embassy. I got very sick and we ended up stuck there for several weeks. We found a church in Bangladesh where we spent Christmas; the pastor had us over for Christmas lunch. After having hitchhiked for five months, lots of people from home said, ‘There’s no shame in just coming home now,’ but we really wanted to finish.
We kept our morale up by starting each day by reading the Bible and praying together. When one of us was down in the dumps, the other would act as encourager. We tried to sneak into Myanmar, but it didn’t work. Eventually I suggested that we went to the airport in Dhaka and asked if anyone would fly us for free to the other side of Myanmar. We ended up speaking to the senior manager of an airline, who had studied in Cambridge, and he understood what hitchhiking meant. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you free flights.’ Steve and I were in tears; we’d been praying, and this was the last throw of the dice in terms of completing the trip. This man had shown us such grace.
The Trussell Trust had prayed that we would be angels to those we met on the trip, and also that God would provide us with angels to help us when we needed it. There were certainly times when both of those things took place. We had the opportunity to pray for many people while we were there.
Spending so much time in Islamic countries was a real eye-opener. I realised how incredibly kind Muslims often are, but that it can be hard for them to understand grace. I gained a broader view of God at work; I still believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but I am much more gracious about that than I was before.
“I FELT THIS OVERWHELMING SENSE OF GRACE”’
Following the breakdown of her marriage, Natasha West (not her real name) went to Aspat Beach, Turkey, with Richmond holidays
When I was 18 I drifted away from God. I started dating a non-Christian and went to dance college, which was a very secular environment. I started working on Saturdays and Sundays so I couldn’t go to church. I still believed in God, but my relationship with him fell apart. It became stale and non-existent.
For the next six years I moved backwards instead of forwards. Just over a year ago, I married the man I had been dating. I thought my life was made ? all I had ever wanted to do was get married and have children. I thought I was very happy.
A few months on from the wedding, he tried to commit suicide. I found out that he had been telling me lies and that he had some serious financial issues due to gambling. From then on, our relationship crumbled. I wanted it to work, but one thing after another went wrong. It was like we were knocking on a wall that was just going to fall down.
In March this year my marriage ended. A few weeks later, my gran died. Then I was taken into hospital for surgery because of an ectopic pregnancy. I hadn’t even realised that I was expecting; I must have fallen pregnant shortly before we decided to separate. It was the worst two months of my life. I struggled to cope.
In August my mum said that she wanted us to go on a Christian holiday, as a family. My parents offered to pay for me to go. It was very unexpected, and just what I needed. I planned to keep my mouth shut, as I didn’t want to feel judged.
On one of the days, I went on a boat trip with a handful of people. People started sharing their testimonies. I thought ‘Oh my goodness, I wanted to keep this quiet.’ But I felt compelled to share my story, and as it was a small group, I felt quite comfortable. It was very emotional and raw. It was hard to do, but I am so glad that I did it. One of the girls listening, who was older than me, then told me her story. She had been through almost exactly the same thing as me. She had got married very young, got divorced, lost a baby. It was quite clear that God had put us both on that holiday for a reason. From then on, I felt this overwhelming sense of grace.
When you grow up as a Christian and go to church regularly, it can be easy to just get swept along with it. But now, the meaning of grace has completely changed for me. I came away from the holiday feeling renewed; I had found my faith in God again. I thought: ‘I want to change the reason why I’m living.’ I got in contact with Ben and Clare Turner, who run Richmond Holidays, to tell them my story ? and to apply to work for a season withed the company. I wanted the opportunity to be surrounded by Christians and to give something back after all they’ve given me.
“HER TODDLER WAS PRETENDING TO BE A TRAIN, CRAWLING THROUGH HER LEGS AS SHE SNIFFED GLUE”’
Louise Champness went with Tearfund to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work with vulnerable girls and young mothers
When I was younger I had an ambition to do missionary work abroad. But when I arrived in Cochabamba to work among vulnerable women, I felt helpless to make much of a difference in the face of so much poverty. I was freshly out of school, and felt that I didn’t have many skills to offer. I didn’t even speak Spanish. Despite that, God really used me in my weakness. It was a very humbling experience.
The charity that my Tearfund group worked with was called Mosoj Yan, meaning ‘A new way’ Launched in 1991, it has three main projects ? a centre in the heart of the city for girls whose mothers work on the streets, where they can have a hot meal and receive help with their homework. Another project for girls who have been abused or abandoned is located on the outskirts of the city. Here the girls are taught basic skills such as sewing, and are eventually encouraged to return to live with their families, if possible. A third project seeks to befriend women who live on the streets, especially those on drugs and with young babies. The trip was four months long; we spent a month working in each of these three areas and two final weeks travelling.
We went out at night in pairs, with a couple of the charity workers, in order to befriend girls on the streets. One of the girls, who was about 15, had a young toddler with her. He was pretending to be a train and crawling through her legs as she sniffed glue. I was so struck by it; here was a toddler, playing as any toddler would, but his mother had an addiction and hardly any future. I had a real sense of compassion and hopelessness. When, later that evening, I got back to the small bungalow where our team was staying, I was so grateful for the roof over our heads.
Working with the women taught me to be less judgemental. Before I went, I saw prostitution as something that is really wrong and I couldn’t see why anyone would do it. Now, while I do still see it as wrong, I feel that if I had been born into the sort of situation that these women face, and not shown any love ? who knows, I could be doing the same.
Going on the trip has given me an awareness that it’s not what we have, or doing things that are great in the world’s eyes, that matter. I have since done some volunteering for a vulnerable women’s project in Newcastle. We might not be able to eradicate poverty, but we can, as Mother Teresa famously said, do ‘small things with great love.’