Sunday 18 November 2018

'I defy anyone to read it and not feel inspired about the world' - Intrepid Irish traveller on the kindness of strangers

Fearghal O'Nuallain
Fearghal O'Nuallain
Fearghal O'Nuallain
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

You never know at any one moment, who you’re going to meet, and how that meeting might even change your life.

Fearghal O’Nuallain (37) from Greystones, was in a bar in Melbourne over 15 years ago when he met a man who’d just cycled across Australia. The stranger was selling his bike.

After hearing this stranger regal a pub crowd with his travel stories, O’Nuallain, a chef at the time, decided there and then that he’d buy the bike and set off on an adventure himself.

“I bought it and I cycled from Melbourne to Sydney, nearly 1,000 kilometres, and then I came home and I cycled from Malin to Mizen Head. And then I cycled to St Petersburg.”

As O’Nuallain travelled the world, he knew he’d finally found his passion, and he decided to become a geography teacher and continue adventuring part-time.

“After coming back from cycling to St Petersburg, I went back to university as a mature student and I cycled around the world after that. Then I did a masters in Trinity, in Environment and Development. I was so excited and passionate about geography and I just wanted to share that, and inspire that in young people.”

“What I love about my job I get to be settled in London, and then I get to go out and have adventures around the world. It’s easy to say that everyone should see the world but not everyone can travel, and there’s certainly a privilege in having the freedom of movement, there’s a socio-economic privilege to having the funds to travel.”

O’Nuallain teaches in a challenging school in inner city London, where he tries to imbue in his students a love of our planet and its terrain.

“When you get out into the world, it comes from a certain concern about where the world is going, in terms of how we’re treating our natural resources. And one antidote to that fear and anxiety is actually to do something.”

“The way we’re treating our natural resources can be quite scary. And giving people the tools and skills and knowledge to be able to do something about that is something to try and allay that fear and anxiety about where the world is going.”

“Stories are immensely powerful and when you can speak from personal experience, everyone engages with that… when you can tell a story, people listen, in the classroom I use storytelling a lot to improve attention and recall.”

O’Nuallain and a group of fellow adventurers have compiled a book of short stories “The Kindness of Strangers” about their travels and the kindnesses they’ve experienced in remote parts of the world.

“It’s a collection of short stories by 25 explorers, adventurers, journalists and TV persons, and the stories are themed around kindness. The ‘kindness of strangers’ is a recurring theme you hear about from travellers, about the people that go above and beyond for them during their journeys.”

“When you go to places often portrayed negatively in the media, generally you come back with heart-warming stories of how they were very receptive and hospitable.”

“There are simple messages in the book to remind people that the people over there are human beings, they’re the same as the people over here.”

“Stories can give us hope and remind us of what’s important. The subtitle of the book is ‘stories that make our heart grow’. I defy anyone to read one or two stories and not feel positive and inspired about the world.”

Fearghail, who once worked in top Irish restaurants L'Ecrivain and Shanahans said: “My first real experience was when I was cycling around the world. The place we encountered it the most was Iran. I was concerned about going to Iran, it had a negative reputation. But we were bowled over by how friendly and welcoming people were.”

“We travelled the whole country and got to the point where we were going to overstay our visa if we accepted all the invites to stay in people’s homes and have a meal. We spent most nights sleeping in mosques, it was cold and our sleeping bags weren’t suitable.”

“If you consider… if you had nowhere to stay in Ireland, and you arrived at a small village, would the local priest say ‘yes, you can sleep in the church’, or would things be a little bit more complicated than that?”

Fearghal and his pal Simon Evans became the first two Irish Irishmen to circumnavigate the globe by bike when they completed their 18-month long and 31,000km journey in 2010.

“Simon had the flu. We were in a restaurant ordering food and travelling on really tight budget, it was really cold and it was raining. Some guy had seen he was sick and he asked where were we staying for the night, and we said we were going camping. He paid for a hotel and put us up for the night and walked away and wanted nothing in return.”

Female solo travellers like Lois Price, and Rebecca Lowe, who travelled around the Horn of Africa, also experienced similar kindnesses.

“The biggest privilege that we have regardless of gender is our passports, and that’s something we often take for granted. That piece of paper means you can travel anywhere you want in the world.”

“I once cycled down from London, hopped on a ferry and travelled to Calais and I took a few days to talk to people who were literally risking their lives to journey to London. They were climbing on trains, I read stories about people who said ‘I swam the channel to get to Britain’, and it’s all because of a piece of paper.”

He added: “When we were cycling, that’s one thing we found, we had no problem finding places to sleep and camp, until we entered Europe, and that’s when it was a problem.”

“We can be cold, we can be busy, we can be insular. But there are stories about the UK,” he concedes, “George Mahood travelled around the UK and he said people looked after them and were charitable and kind to them.”

“It requires a bit of effort to step outside the comfort zone and stay human. When you cut down to the core of what it means to be human, to be human means to be kind.”

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