In 1977, my parents Alec and Jan Forman drove over 40,000 miles through 29 countries across Europe, Africa, and Asia in their Series 3 Land Rover. Their travels brought a lifetime’s worth of stunning views and rich cultural experiences that they would never forget. However, their fondest memories are the humbling encounters they had with strangers, many of whom were like angels, welcoming my parents into their homes and guiding them along the way.
Not only did they connect with other travellers — including a Swiss couple as their convoy companions, and another British couple whom they met in Vienna who became lifetime friends — but they were delighted to meet the locals and learn something about their cultures.
Alec and Jan share these encounters in their book, Strangers Like Angels, with a Devil or Two to Boot, and share their reflections and a few excerpts of those cultural connections with the explmore community.
Why did you call the book Strangers Like Angels?
To celebrate the generous hospitality of strangers welcoming us into our homes and willing to direct us along the route, and the opportunity to be helpful to others.
What surprised you most about your trip?
The people that we met, especially the poorer people who were more generous in their hospitality. You have to go there and smell it and rub shoulders to get the real true sense of the cultures of the world.
What would you tell others who might be scared to engage with others?
Just go for it. Again, there are of course still some devils to boot, but in our experience the majority of everyday people are warm and hospitable. If you attempt to engage with someone in conversation or simply start with a smile, hidden barriers will fall.
Excerpts from “Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot,” by Alec and Jan Forman.
The next morning after breakfast, we pulled up a distance away from the tent, noticing the large flock of sheep and goats. Before long a black, bearded man walked over to greet us. He shook Alec’s hand firmly, then clasped his hand to his chest in the cultural way. He beckoned us to follow him.
We entered the tent: a repaired, striped, wool-woven blanket supported by wooden stakes thrust into the ground in a hexagonal shape, with a taller stake in the centre. The interior was divided into two by a blanket wall, the family space on one side, the other section for the young animals.
The man’s wife placed a well-worn blanket on the ground to the front of the tent and our host invited us to sit down. His wife disappeared behind the blanket wall to reappear with breakfast: goat’s milk, coffee, dates, and bread. Then she withdrew into the tent. The other young children, dressed in sparse, tattered clothing, watched from a distance, unsure of us white people. The father tenderly cradled his youngest in the lap of his robes, a cheery baby daughter, who gurgled when he tickled her feet.
It was a surreal moment in time, one in which to take a photograph would have cheapened a rare and treasured experience. So we simply sat and enjoyed this brief encounter in a nomadic family’s home.
“Oh no,’ said Alec, ‘that sounded like a rear spring breaking. I was afraid that might happen. I need to pull over.’
Fortunately there was a level piece of rough land to drive onto.
‘Let’s have a cup of tea,’ I suggested, feeling rather tense and tired after sixty miles of driving along the hazardous road.
‘Good idea,’ Alec replied, as he looked beneath the vehicle at the broken leaf spring.
Sitting quietly together in the back of the Land-Rover, we sipped the hot tea, with a dash of sugar in to lift our spirits, and Alec hatched a plan.”
“Oh no. What have we here!’ exclaimed the British site manager.
‘We came across one of your Land-Rovers wrapped around a boulder and brought your injured men here,’ I explained, as someone else quickly summed up the situation and took the injured men to hospital in the camp ambulance.
‘And what about the Land-Rover?’ he asked.
‘Oh, that’s a write-off,’ Alec replied, as he bent down to check the state of our rear springs.
‘Damn! That’s the third new one written off in a month,’ the manager declared. ‘But, hey — what’s up with yours?’
‘Say no more. Take your Land-Rover around to our workshop, and my mechanics can fix it overnight. Our air-conditioned guest room is vacant. I hear there’s roast duck on the menu for supper and drinks are on the house. It’s movie night too, on the big screen.’
Alec and I looked in astonishment at each other.
‘Okay, sounds great — thanks,’ responded Alec.
It was a terrific night, all round.”
“We were up at six for a delicious, full English breakfast with the contractors before they started work in the cool of the early morning. When we collected the Land-Rover our jaws dropped as we discovered they had fitted brand new suspension — complete rear springs with shock absorbers on both sides. The still-serviceable parts that were removed we took along with us. Bearing in mind the country’s fuel crisis, they generously topped up the vehicle with free petrol too. Then, as an extra-special touch, we spied the words:
WIMPEY, JOS — BAUCHI ROAD sign-painted in black on the side of Dad’s wooden box up on the roof rack. What a unique souvenir!”
Out of Nevsehir we took the route toward Avanos and soon the extraordinary valley of Cappadocia was before us. As it was getting late, we needed to find somewhere to park. Alec drove along a dirt track off the main route and stopped close to a stone-block house where a man lived with his two sons.
The oldest lad came over to see us — we asked his permission to park there and he assured us that we were most welcome. Later he demonstrated this by giving us four huge bunches of black grapes that he carried in a metal bucket. We shared our supper with him.
Alec then went to meet his father who was cutting big blocks from the natural soft rock terrain. He stopped his work and invited Alec to look inside his home.
Travel, especially overland travel, requires a certain amount of trust in advice and guidance from the local people. Encounters like these, making connections with strangers despite language and cultural barriers, is something that you can’t plan. You can’t adequately capture it, and you certainly can’t forget it once you’ve gone home. You just need to make sure that you have an open mind and posture yourself as a visitor in someone’s home.
As my parents advise,
‘To take a risk, to step out of the normal routine, is to experience the extraordinary and to stretch yourselves beyond what you ever imagined you could cope with. Bon Voyage!’
To read the full story of Alec and Jan Forman’s travels, check out their book Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot and its companion podcast.